A test for China-South Korea relations

The China-South Korea relations are at their worst since the establishment of diplomatic ties between Beijing and Seoul in 1992.

After years of discussion, Washington and Seoul announced on July 8, 2016 the decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. The July 2016 decision was reconfirmed on March 1, 2017 by South Korean National Security Advisor Kim Kwan-jin and his American counterpart, H.R. McMaster, following the February 27 approval of a land swap deal between the South Korean government and retail giant Lotte that allows the THAAD system to be deployed on the military’s preferred site.

China is adamantly against the THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula. In the July 2016 announcement of the THAAD deployment, General Vincent Brooks, Commander of U.S. Forces Korea, specified that the system was needed to protect South Korea from North Korea’s nuclear weapons. However, as Jane Perlez of New York Times noted, Beijing “does not believe the North Korean threat is the true reason for the American-initiated deployment.” Rather, Beijing sees “the purpose of the THAAD system is to track missiles launched from China.”

Viewed from Beijing, China now has America’s most advanced missile system literally in its backyard, a system that is designed to detect, intercept and destroy any incoming short, medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their terminal flight phase, with a high success rate.

What is perhaps more alarming for China, “The acquisition of THAAD by South Korea,” says Richard Weitz at Hudson Institute, “is a first step in what needs to become an integrated defensive capability for the U.S. and its allies in the region.” The THAAD deployment in South Korea will likely, according to Weitz, “be followed by additional measures to network the ROK, Japan, and the U.S. regional Ballistic Missile Defenses.”

Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD has made Beijing furious.

“Beijing, enraged at the defiance of ‘a small country’,” writes Gordon Chang of Forbes, “has gone to great lengths to prevent the installation of the system. To prevent deployment of THAAD in South Korea, Beijing has threatening to cut diplomatic relations with Seoul. Furthermore, it is trying to crush the South’s economy, barring its K-pop groups from performing in China, ending charter flights to the South, and banning the import of South Korean cosmetics. Daily Chinese state media tirades target Seoul.”

“Beijing’s escalating condemnation of South Korea over a U.S. anti-missile system,” reports Louise Watt of Washington Post, “has triggered protests against a popular South Korean retail giant and a ban on Chinese tour groups visiting the country, apparent signs that Beijing plans to make Seoul pay an economic price over a move that China says threatens its security. Public protests have included one outside a Lotte Mart in the northeastern province of Jilin in which people held up a long banner which read: South Korea’s Lotte declares a war against China, Lotte gets out of China now!”

China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and the most important source of inbound tourism, “This could be just the beginning,” says Michael Na of Nomura Financial Investment Korea, “China has so many options to punish Korean businesses, almost every major Korean company, including Hyundai Motor and Amore Pacific, relies heavily on Chinese sales.”

The media and public in South Korea are fomenting sentiment against China as well. An March 6 editorial of Korea Times entitled “Grow up, China” has called China “a spoiled child” and asked “we Koreans” to “get ready and tough it out.”

“China,” stated the editorial, “often acts like a spoiled child, doing whatever it takes to get what it wants. Korea’s decision to deploy U.S. interceptors targeting North Korean missiles has Beijing resorting to this pattern of misbehavior. China’s Global Times, a member of Chinese official media family, called for the boycott of Lotte products. Beijing’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily, suggested that diplomatic ties with Korea should be scaled back.” South Korea, the editorial went on, has to “reduce its reliance on China for exports and bring unity to our political voice, until China sees reason.”

The deployment THAAD in South Korea has become a litmus test for China-South Korea relations. “Finding a practical middle ground will not be easy,” noted Lee Hee Ok of Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, “South Korea is not likely to renege on its decision to deploy THAAD despite China’s opposition and it will be difficult for Beijing to accept the US-ROK decision. A game of chicken appears to be emerging on the issue.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is director of Marietta College’s China Program.