China concerned as US deploys anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea following North Korean missile test

A statement released by US Pacific Command (USPACOM) announced the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense Missiles (THAAD) to the Korean peninsula beginning Monday. North Korea’s accelerating program of nuclear weapons tests and ballistic missile launches constitute a threat to international peace and security, and are in violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions. The deployment of THAAD contributes to a layered missile defense system and enhances the U.S.-ROK Alliance’s defense against North Korean missile threats.

China’s response was swift. Lotte, the Japanese-Korean conglomerate with businesses from confectionery to malls, has found itself in the cross hairs of China’s nationalist mobs last week as online shoppers and internet trolls launched a boycott of the brand for allowing a US missile defense system to be placed on a plot of Lotte land in South Korea.

Previously China’s ambassador to South Korea has warned the opposition Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK) that the deployment of a THAAD system could “destroy” the China-South Korea relationship. MPK spokesperson Kim Sung-soo quoted Ambassador Qiu Guohong’s comments, made in a meeting with MPK chairman Kim Chong-in, to the Korean media last year.

The THAAD missile system is intended to intercept short- and medium range ballistic missiles, such as the Scud. It also has limited capability against intercontinental ballistic missiles. This missile system was developed by Lockheed Martin. In 2006 a contract was signed for delivery of 48 new anti-missile systems to the US Army. The THAAD entered service in 2009.

“Continued provocative actions by North Korea, that include yesterday’s launch of multiple missiles, only confirm the prudence of our alliance decision last year to deploy THAAD to South Korea,” said Adm. Harry Harris, commander, U.S. Pacific Command. “We will resolutely honor our alliance commitments to South Korea and stand ready to defend ourselves, the American homeland, and our allies.”

The statement also claims the THAAD system is a strictly defensive capability and it poses no threat to other countries in the region. THAAD is designed to intercept and destroy short and medium range ballistic missiles inside or outside the atmosphere during their final, or terminal, phase of flight.

China worries primarily about the system’s surveillance capabilities. It’s not concerned that a THAAD missile battery in South Korea could intercept a Chinese strategic missile bound for continental America which is not a realistic scenario. Rather, it’s concerned that THAAD’s radar might be able to offer early tracking data to other parts of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system, particularly to the Ground Based Interceptors responsible for defending the U.S. homeland and degrading China’s ability to target the United States.

From the Chinese perspective, a THAAD deployment could shift the strategic stability needle ever so slightly away from its status quo equilibrium and advantage the United States, giving Washington better early warning and tracking of Chinese ICBMs.  What’s interesting is reading China’s worries about a THAAD and AN/TPY-2 radar deployment on the Korean peninsula together with murmurs that Beijing is growing increasingly interested in a launch-on-warning nuclear posture.

Its anxiety is a classic case of a security trilemma, where actions taken by one country in response to the actions of another, the deployment of enhanced U.S. BMD capabilities to offset North Korea’s growing missile capabilities complicate relations with a third player. China is not the first country to feel threatened by a ballistic missile defense radar. US relations with Russia degraded significantly, and for good reason, when George W. Bush’s administration proposed deploying a X-band radar in Europe to support a regional ballistic missile defense system against Iran.

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