The Telegraph, 6 March, 2017
In the wake of widespread criticism of its assassination of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur last month, North Korea has defiantly fired four intermediate ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. Tracked by US, Korean, and Japanese forces, the four missiles were fired 730 on a Monday morning, from Tongchang-ri province, with three landing in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
The timing was of course carefully chosen. Coinciding with the annual military exercise Foal Eagle, in which US and South Korean forces train for a future North Korean invasion, the missile test was a threatening reminder to Washington that Pyongyang’s nuclear reach is growing and may soon be able to hit the continental United States. This threat, North Korea’s leaders may reason, might deter the United States from defending South Korea in any future contingency.
The launch was not, however, good timing from Beijing’s perspective. It has been opposed to Seoul’s decision in 2016 to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an anti-ballistic missile defence system within its territory.
Citing China’s “national security concerns” in February 2016, Foreign Minister Wang Yi worried that the X-band radar could peer far beyond North Korea’s territory, deep into Chinese territory. Its concern was that the system could be used offensively and also to gain strategic early-warning in any US-related contingency.
The deployment has revealed a number of security dilemmas on the peninsula that diplomats are struggling to de-conflict. In the first instance, South Korea remains a favourite target of North Korea and has suffered a number of minor attacks and provocations over the years. In 2010, the North even sank one of its corvettes, the ROKS Cheonan in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 Korean sailors.
The past year has seen a strong Chinese campaign to pressure Seoul into stopping the deployment, with the government banning Chinese tour groups to the country, and boycotting a retail company after it agreed to supply land for the THAAD deployment. In many ways, Beijing is the victim of its own ally in all this.
Unable or unwilling to pressure North Korea where it might truly hurt – on energy and food supplies – Beijing focuses its ire on South Korea alone, using economic and political pressure, and offering only platitudes about restarting peace talks.
In a sense, this pattern of prioritizing its own security preferences – at the expense of its regional neighbours – is becoming a hallmark of Chinese security policy in the region.
It is quite ironic, given the fact that its trade relationship with Seoul far outstrips that with Pyongyang. Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a senior lecturer in international relations at King’s College London says, “China is focusing on the wrong potential threat. If there were going to be a conflict in Northeast Asia, it would be the result of North Korea’s actions, rather than South Korea’s or anything related to THAAD.”
In reaction to Chinese displeasure, both Washington and Seoul have sought to remind Beijing ultimately, whether or not THAAD is deployed rests on China’s own actions. Before her downfall in a corruption scandal, South Korea’s strong-minded President Park Geun-hye stated that the South would not need THAAD if China dealt with the North Korean missile threat.
Admiral Harry Harris, the current Commander of the Pacific Command (PACOM), in charge of US forces in Asia Pacific, reiterated that, saying, “If China wanted to exert a lot of influence on somebody to prevent THAAD from being considered going into Korea, then they should exert that influence on North Korea.”
Naturally, American statements have little effect in China right now, as Sino-US relations dip to their lowest point in decades. Furthermore, as Jim Schoff, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, asserts, “the US-China relationship has essentially become the fulcrum for the regional security environment, and a misalignment of that point risks serious instability and possible conflict.”
While many warn of the “Thucydides Trap” that China’s rise might provoke, both have made serious efforts to accommodate each other and avoid conflict. America’s support for China’s inclusion into the World Trade Organization in 2000, its support for a Chinese-hosted Six Party Talks, and its promotion of a US-China bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2009, reveal the sincerity with which both states have sought to institutionalize the relationship. The Trump administration has seemed to question whether those efforts were in America’s best interests.
While Beijing has argued – often correctly – that it has little leverage over the regime in Pyongyang, the truth is that China holds the keys to resolving the issue. Every day, hundreds of trucks, carrying fuel and coal enter into North Korea from the Chinese border. If China were to stop these, North Korea’s economy would cease to function in short order.
China continues to supply the North partly because it does not really want a unified Korea on its doorstep. This is especially true of any future state based on the South Korean model, with its strong security alliance with Washington. Talking with Chinese diplomats and scholars on the issue, one is struck by the fear of containment that runs through Chinese policy circles; the possibility of American troops on the Yalu River exerts a stronger grip on them than North Koreans weapon systems – systems that are after all, aimed at Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington, rather than Beijing.
In all this, few have asked what Seoul wants. This is where the second security dilemma becomes evident, the intra-alliance security dilemma between Washington and Seoul. Critics in Seoul have argued that the system does not really protect South Korea from many of the North’s deployable missile systems, and that it merely serves to protect US forces in the Pacific and on the US continental mainland.
In an age of Trump, when US defence guarantees to allies have been re-examined for their utility, the institutional defence system, worked by both militaries, has helped bind the two allies closer together. By agreeing to host the system, Seoul offers the US a form of security – that of early warning for any US-bound missile launches. Furthermore, as the relationship between Washington and Beijing becomes increasingly marked by competitive elements – perhaps even trade war – the US will welcome anything that brings its regional allies closer in line with its regional objectives.
Today’s four missile tests will have annoyed Beijing to no end, since they effectively justify Seoul’s decision to deploy the American system. To some extent, China’s criticism of THAAD focuses on the radar system and ignores the cause: that of North Korean missiles.
Arguably, Beijing has forced Seoul into this position by pursuing its narrow security preferences over those of Seoul. It might want to reconsider its support of Pyongyang and further cut its dealings with the disagreeable regime.