Tag Archive | "THAAD"

As Chinese Tourists Continue to Drop, Korea Turns to the Middle East

By Jenna Gibson

As several KEI analyses have shown, South Korea’s tourism industry  has been one of the main casualties of China’s economic retaliation over deployment of the THAAD missile defense system. New estimates from the Korea Tourism Organization show that China’s retaliation could cost Korea up to 5 million tourists this year, five times as many as when the MERS outbreak significantly dampened tourism in early 2015.

In June 2017, Korea saw a 36 percent drop in tourist entries, due in large part to a 66.4 percent decrease in Chinese visitors compared to June 2016. At that time, Chinese tourists made up 48.8 percent of all entries into Korea – a figure that’s now down to 25.7 percent.

But the numbers also reveal some good news that illuminate an important avenue for future growth in Korea’s tourism industry. While Chinese visitors continued to drop, the number of tourists from the Middle East have jumped significantly, recording a 71 percent increase from June 2016 to June 2017.

And, perhaps more importantly, tourists from the Middle East spend significantly more during their time in Korea than those from other areas, according to a study by the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute. Their recent survey of tourists in Korea showed that Middle Eastern visitors spent an average of $2,593 each during their trip, followed by Chinese tourists at $2,059 each. The average for all visitors to Korea is significantly lower, at $1,625.

In order to cash in on this growing market, the Korean government and the tourism industry are focusing on providing more services for Middle Eastern tourists, including a push to increase the number of halal certified restaurants around the country. Just this month, 117 more restaurants received their halal certification, bringing the total to 252. In addition, many popular tourist attractions have added prayer rooms for their Muslim visitors, including Nami Island, Lotte World, and Coex Mall, as well as Incheon International Airport and Busan’s Gimhae International Airport.

MENA tourism graphic-01

Part of the drive for more tourists from the Middle East choosing to visit Korea is the explosive popularity of Hallyu across the region. Take Iran, for example. There, fascination with Korean culture started back in the mid-2000s, when the historical drama ‘Dae Jang Geum’ was broadcast on state TV and garnered 86 percent ratings nationwide. In a 2017 report of the most popular shows on Netflix around the world, Iran was only one of two non-Asian countries to put a Korean drama (2012’s Love Rain) on the top of their queues.

In June, CJ E&M, Korea’s largest media company, said it will be opening a Turkish unit to increase its presence in Turkey, where locals can’t seem to get enough Korean cultural content. Considering that the filming sites of many popular Korean dramas have become popular tourist destinations, this increase in the popularity of Korean TV shows could lead to overseas fans travelling to Korea to see the spot where their favorite drama couple fell in love.

With the Korean tourism industry continuing to focus on enticing Middle Eastern visitors as well as tourists from all parts of the world, there is certainly an opening to offset some of the losses from the drop in Chinese tourism over the last year or so. But there is still a long way to go – even with the huge increase in visitors, Middle Eastern tourists still only make up around 1 percent of entries into Korea.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. 

Image from yadem.hayseed’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Is the Hallyu Crisis with China Over?

By Jenna Gibson

Beijing has approved the broadcast of a new Korean drama that had been co-produced by a Korean and a Chinese company, according to a source in the Chinese entertainment industry, making it the first Korean show to get the green light since before the THAAD spat.

This move is good news for Korean entertainment companies, which have been lamenting the Chinese ban which had slowly pushed Korean stars out of the spotlight throughout last year and culminated in direct retaliation against tourist packages and Lotte Department stores. It also bodes well for drama co-productions, which had seen tremendous success in last year’s standout Descendants of the Sun. At the time, before THAAD derailed things, Korean-Chinese collaboration was seen as the new frontier in Hallyu, and key to the continued success of Korean creative content in the Chinese market.

What’s interesting is the impetus for China’s reversal on allowing Hallyu content. Beijing is likely trying to start off on a good foot with newly elected Korean President Moon Jae-In, himself a skeptic of the THAAD system, in an attempt to give Moon some leeway should he decide to review the deployment.

A recent op-ed in the People’s Daily-affiliated Global Times insisted that “It is likely that Moon will stop THAAD’s deployment,” saying, “The huge economic losses South Korea has suffered are a result of the Chinese public’s anger. South Korea, which relies heavily on China economically, needs to weigh its potential gains and losses carefully” and that “Both Beijing and Seoul should take Moon’s presidency as an opportunity to promote warmer bilateral relations.”

But in reality, Moon has little room to maneuver at this point. THAAD is already in place and operating at some capacity, and recent missile launches from North Korea (the second of which was detected by THAAD) have highlighted its necessity in the public eye.

Although there was a dip in approval last November, the Korean public has largely remained favorable toward the THAAD system, according to polling by the Asan Institute in Seoul.  As of March, 50.6 percent of Koreans approved of THAAD, with 37.9 percent opposed. Perhaps because of this, President Moon has softened his position from outright opposition during the early stages of the campaign to stating that he objects to the way the decision was made, not the system itself.

As Asan Vice President Choi Kang pointed out in a KEI podcast after the election, President Moon may be constrained both by domestic politics and public opinion. Moon’s Minjoo Party only has 120 seats out of 300 seats in the National Assembly, and he failed to breach 50 percent of the vote during his election.

“How he can make a coalition or compromise with opposition parties is going to be a very, very critical issue for him to handle in the early phase of his presidency,” Choi said.

This could be particularly difficult when it comes to China, which has seen a steep decline in popularity among the Korean public since they stepped up their economic pressure over THAAD. Beijing’s economic retaliation has included the ban on selling tourist packages to Korea as well as cancelled concerts and a block on Korean entertainment content being uploaded to streaming sites.

According to a new report from the Korea Institute for Industrial Economics and Trade (KIET), “China’s ban on South Korean cultural imports will amount to 5.6 trillion won (US$5.02 billion) and 15.2 trillion won (US$13.6 billion) in direct and indirect damage in the consumer goods distribution sector” if it continues for six months. New numbers from the Korea Tourism Organization show a 66 percent year-on-year drop in Chinese visitors in April, driving much of the estimated losses for industries such as clothing and cosmetics.

“It’s quite difficult for South Korea to improve its relations with China because public understanding of China has deteriorated over several months,” Choi said. “So unless there is a positive sign coming from China on this economic pressure, it is very unlikely for the South Korean government to improve drastically its relations with China.”

Now that China seems to be offering an olive branch, public opinion may begin to shift back in Beijing’s favor. But after months of panicked headlines over China’s latest crackdown, it’s unlikely that one fantasy romance drama will be enough to turn things around entirely.

At this point, Beijing may continue to roll back its content and tourism bans in the hopes of wooing President Moon to their point of view, or as a face-saving measure. Either way, though, Chinese leadership would be ill-advised to hold their breath for a THAAD removal.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image from LG전자’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Chinese Tourists to South Korea Drop 40 Percent in March Amid THAAD Row

By Jenna Gibson

It’s official – new numbers from March confirm that China’s THAAD retaliation has significantly cut into South Korea’s tourism industry.

According to new data released today by the Korea Tourism Organization, the number of Chinese tourists arriving in South Korea fell 40 percent year-on-year in March 2017.

Only 360,782 Chinese visitors came to South Korea in March, down from 601,671 in March last year.

Considering that China’s alleged travel ban only took effect on March 15, about halfway through the month, it’s possible that April’s drop could be even more dire.

South Korea’s tourism industry is heavily reliant on Chinese visitors – in 2016, they made up 47 percent of all tourist arrivals and 70 percent of sales at Korean duty free shops.

According to a previous KEI article, “Chinese tourists spent an average of $2,391 per person while visiting Korea – meaning the 8 million Chinese tourists who visited Korea in 2016 brought nearly $20 billion into the local economy.” So, if the 40 percent cut in visitors results in a corresponding drop in revenue, the Korean tourism industry could lose up to $7.7 billion as a direct result of China’s THAAD retaliation.

Chinese Tourism Graph March

There is a silver lining in the March tourism data. Despite this massive 40 percent drop in visitors from China, the total number of people entering South Korea in March was down only 11.2 percent over March 2016. This is thanks in large part to a 22 percent jump in visitors from Japan, the second-largest group of tourists in Korea after China.

Other countries such as Taiwan, Myanmar, Vietnam and Mongolia also showed significant increases. This may be a good sign for the Korean government, which is heavily targeting Southeast Asia and the Middle East to diversify the industry and decrease their reliance on tourists from China.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is reportedly focusing more on advertising in Southeast Asia and Japan, and Seoul has started posting signs at major tourist destinations in Bahasa Indonesia, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese.

In addition, the KTO has been increasing their focus on tourists from Muslim-majority countries, helping local restaurants get halal accreditation and even hosting a Halal Restaurant Week at the end of last year to highlight Korean food options for Muslim visitors.

Meanwhile, just after the ban took effect, the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy promised to provide 400 billion ($349 million) to support businesses affected by the THAAD retaliation, including those in the tourism industry.

This is not the first crisis that the Korean tourism agency has dealt with in recent years. During the peak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak in July 2015, total tourism arrivals were down 53.3 percent over the year before, including a 63.1 percent drop in arrivals from China. Later that year, the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute estimated that MERS cost the tourist industry 3.4 trillion won ($3 billion) in lost revenue. The fact that the tourism industry was able to bounce back from that significantly greater drop bodes well for its ability to deal with this crisis as well.

While it remains to be seen how deep this THAAD spat will cut the Korean tourism industry over time, it is clear from these new numbers that the Chinese retaliation should not be taken lightly. As the THAAD system continues to go through the deployment process, Korea will have to keep an eye on the immediate as well as secondary effects of China’s policies.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Graphic by Jenna Gibson. Photo from Tom Page’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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China: Challenges for the Next South Korean Administration

This is the first in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations in the run up to the next Korean administration taking office on May 10. The series also includes blogs on relations with North Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia, the European Union, the Middle EastASEAN, Africa, and Latin America.

By Mark Tokola

A question frequently asked is whether the next South Korean administration will tilt towards China and away from the United States, based on Seoul’s purportedly shifting perception of the relative importance of the two countries.  In reality, it is not helpful to judge whether the United States or China are more important to the Republic of Korea.  There is no simple reply to the general question and, honestly, there is no reason to answer it.

Decisions are particular and based on practical requirements, not on answering a generalized question about which country is more important than another.  For example, Korean military procurement decisions almost always will be based on compatibility requirements with their U.S. military counterparts.  Jeju-do tourism authorities probably should look more towards accommodating Chinese tastes than American.  A Korean university looking to partner with a cutting-edge, innovative foreign university would be wise to partner with an American rather than a Chinese academic institution (15 of the world’s top 20 universities are American, none are Chinese).  Korean construction companies interested in participating in Asian regional infrastructure projects probably should head for Beijing or Shanghai rather than San Francisco or Dallas.

Moises Naim in his book, The End of Power, recommends that everyone should “get off the elevator” and stop obsessing about who is up and who is down.  Heeding that advice, we can discuss the challenges that South Korea faces in its relationship with China without re-measuring the distances between Seoul and Beijing, and Seoul and Washington. What is generally true is that South Korea will benefit from cooperative relationships with all three of the countries with which it has the most to gain or lose (exempting North Korea): the United States, Japan, and China.

The imminent question facing the next South Korean administration in regard to its relations with China is what to do about the THAAD anti-missile system.  The Park Geun-hye Administration in July 2016 accepted the U.S. offer to deploy the THAAD system in South Korea following North Korean ballistic missile tests.  The THAAD system will serve the purpose of protecting U.S. and ROK military installations and key southern sites, such as the port of Busan, which would be used to reinforce allied forces in the event of a conflict.  The threat is not imaginary; North Korea has explicitly threatened South Korea with missile attacks.  China has vociferously opposed THAAD deployment as running counter to China’s strategic interests and has been explicit that South Korea’s relationship with China will suffer if THAAD is deployed.  Along with its public condemnations, Chinese tourism to South Korea has suffered and Korean firms operating in China have been subject to harassment by government officials.

There is a public debate within South Korea regarding THAAD deployment but the smaller part of the discussion is about the cost, effectiveness, or need for the system.  Most opposition to THAAD is about whether it is unacceptably damaging relations with China.  In the past, there might have been a debate in South Korea about whether THAAD was reducing the prospects of North-South diplomacy, but Kim Jong-un’s North Korea has been so belligerent, unyielding to international sanctions, and uninterested in dialogue with Seoul that THAAD’s effect on inter-Korean relations is barely mentioned.  It is all about China.

As a matter of fortunate timing, the next ROK administration will be spared the choice of whether to introduce THAAD to the peninsula.  Its hardware has already begun arriving and deployment is well underway.  If the new government does nothing, THAAD will be ready to counter potential North Korean attacks within months.  It would require a bold decision on the part of the new government to reverse course and dismantle a system that was already in place to defend the Republic of Korea against the North Korean threat.  China is still protesting, but there are rumors that the Chinese government is internally reviewing why its tactics failed to prevent THAAD deployment and is now looking forward to get past the problem.  China would be ill-advised to begin its relationship with a new ROK administration by pressing it hard with an extremely difficult demand to meet.

That is not to say that THAAD is forever.  If U.S. and Chinese pressure succeeded in dragging North Korea to the negotiating table, and if North Korea as a result of negotiations became less threatening to South Korea, there is nothing that would prevent THAAD from being withdrawn from the peninsula.  If the military threat THAAD is designed to guard against goes away, it would not need to remain.  If China mistakenly but genuinely believes that THAAD represents an American threat to Chinese strategic interest, rather than a North Korean threat to South Korean interest, then it would be clearly in China’s interest to push North Korea in a peaceful direction.  The next South Korean government may well point that out to them.

There are other issues that the new Korean administration will need to take up with China.  On the economic front, Seoul may point out to China that THAAD-related retaliation against South Korean economic interests, including tourism, imposes costs on both sides and will chill the atmosphere for future economic cooperation.  South Korean investors may think twice about whether to put their investment into China given China’s demonstrated use of commercial leverage for political purposes.  Large South Korean firms may now also consider it wise to diversify their activity to be less dependent on the Chinese market.  Regardless of THAAD, that might be prudent.  It will be worth reviewing implementation of the 2015 ROK-China trade agreement to see if it is working as intended.  The Regional Comprehensive Partnership Agreement (RCEP), which would include both China and South Korea, is still there to be negotiated, and may have new life breathed into it by the U.S.-precipitated collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The next South Korean administration may prefer to stay out of disputes involving China that less directly involve Korean interests, such as the South China Sea territorial issues. That may prove impossible if China’s general regional assertiveness manifests itself in ways that affect Korea, such as the illegal activities of the Chinese fishing fleet, claimed Air Defense Identification Zones, or Chinese interference in maritime freedom of navigation.  As a virtual island, because its sole land border is with North Korea, South Korea depends upon air and sea lanes, and the international rules that guarantee their free use.  It is less an immediate issue than THAAD, but the next South Korean government may find itself at odds with China regarding China’s quest to exert control over China’s periphery in ways that do not respect the sovereign interests of the countries of the region.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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A Conversation on THAAD from the Chinese Perspective

KEI Communications Director Jenna Gibson, host of the KEI podcast Korean Kontext, recently interviewed Yun Sun, Senior Associate with the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center,  about the Chinese perspective on the THAAD missile defense system.

 The following is a partial transcript of that conversation. The rest of the episode can be found here.

 Jenna Gibson: Can you start by giving us kind of the big picture here from Chinese perspective? Why are they so opposed to that and how serious are they about trying to stop this deployment?

Yun Sun: Well, the Chinese explanation is that they believe this is a military threat to China’s nuclear capability. It’s because the radar could reach as far as 2,000 kilometers, so the Chinese view that their military deployment and their military exercises, basically any military operations inside mainland China, will not be able to escape the radar that the THAAD system will encompass, so they feel vulnerable. So, there is a security argument there.

There’s also a political argument where the Chinese argue that they see this as an effort by the United States to reinforce and re-strengthen their alliance relations with South Korea. And even with the possibility of the integrated missile defense system in Northeast Asia, the United States is intending to create a Northeast Asia NATO against China. That is a political dimension.

There is also an interesting leadership dimension. If you look at President Xi Jinping’s policy towards the Korean Peninsula since his inauguration in 2013, it is a very interesting shift as Xi Jinping had been trying to pull South Korea closer to China. So, there had been a deterioration of relations between China and North Korea, but at the same time, what forms a sharp contrast to that is a warming or rapprochement between Beijing and Seoul. So it’s almost like Xi Jinping’s personal foreign policy achievement that under him, South Korea has become much closer and much friendlier towards China. So, this THAAD deployment must have been very disappointing for the top Chinese leader, that this is his creation, his baby, and his campaign, and now it’s not coming to a good result.

Judging from the economic sanctions that Beijing has been willing to impose on South Korean, not only government, but primarily South Korean companies. I’d say that the Chinese are very serious about punishing South Korean entities for the deployment of THAAD. That represents Beijing’s determination and their seriousness to stop the deployment. But, I also think they understand that at this point, budget has already been allocated, the land has been secured, and the deployment has started. So, they have to understand that this is going to happen with or without their support or sanction.

 Jenna Gibson: So, things have seemed to come to a bit of ahead in a week or so with China allegedly cracking down on streaming of Korean TV shows, going after Lotte department stores, and possibly banning travel agencies from selling trips to Korea. Why has China seemingly stepped up their economic pushback against the missile defense system?

 Yun Sun: The timing is because the deployment is finally going to happen materially. In the past, although the decision to deploy the THAAD system was made almost last summer, it was a political decision. So the Chinese have been persistently using different policy instruments, trying to change the calculus, change the decision by the South Korean government. So, I would say that until the deployment is completed and until the South Korean government tells Beijing unequivocally that the decision is permanent and is final, the Chinese will not stop pushing. So before the deployment is completed, Beijing will keep pushing.

 Jenna Gibson: So, I have a personal theory. I think that China is killing two birds with one stone here. They are seizing upon an opportunity to cut down on the popularity of Korean pop culture in China, which Beijing has been upset about it for years. What do you think about that? Is this more than just the missile defense system?

 Yun Sun: If you look at how the Korean pop culture had been received and perceived in China by the Chinese government, you will find this interesting distinction that basically under President Lee Myung-bak, Korean pop culture was regarded as almost toxic in China. But, we will have to assume that this was very closely linked to the judgment that President Lee Myung-bak was pro-U.S. and anti-China.

Then, under President Park, the Chinese government policy towards Korean pop culture was actually quite positive. You’ll see Korean pop stars appearing on the Chinese New Year’s Festival gala on the Chinese Central Television, which is quite a high prominent treatment for foreign movie actors or pop stars.

So, I would say that the Chinese attitude towards Korean pop culture is still very much related to the political climate between the two countries. When the political relations are good, the Chinese are more likely to treat Korean pop culture with positive reception. But, when the political relations are bad, you will see that there is almost a ban for any Korean soap operas on Chinese TV today.

  Jenna Gibson: I will be really curious to see the things go forward, you know, how much are the Korean companies, how much is k-pop, how much are Korean dramas affected going forward? Is there any pushback? I’ll be really curious to follow that.

 Yun Sun: Yeah, so far, we haven’t seen that much of a pushback from the Chinese general public. You see this anti-Korea demonstrations in some of Chinese cities as well. You also see that one point, Korean cars were pretty popular in China, and now there are people who are vandalizing Korean cars on the street. So, what that says is the government’s ability to influence the public opinion on these matters is really strong.

There’s also the fact that local governments would assume that the central government want to see this anti-Korea sentiment bubbling from their locale. So sometimes, the central government may not be behind certain movement against a certain Lotte supermarket. But, a local government might be.

  Jenna Gibson: Now that the U.S. is clearly in the middle of this, too. We are the ones who are deploying THAAD and of course we are close allies with South Korea. So, what advice would you give to the United States in this situation? Is there a way to work with China on the North Korean issue right now? I know President Trump has been really emphasizing that China peace in solving the North Korean problem. Do you think that that’s the right way to go?

Yun Sun: I think the U.S. is doing the right thing. The deployment of THAAD is not about China, it is about North Korea. And if China doesn’t like it, it must address the source of the problem, which is the North Korean nuclear provocation. So, I think the U.S. is absolutely doing the right thing here.

And for the Trump administration, the U.S. does have this first mover advantage. After the Taiwan controversy, the Tsai Ing-wen phone call, and after President Trump’s comments in the past about how he is going to punish China on trade and is going to negotiate with China for a good deal, I think the Chinese are put on alert. They are very sensitive about what the U.S. might do to China next. And they are not in a very confident position to challenge President Trump. So that almost gives President Trump and his administration an edge, an advantage over China’s policy because China does not want to start a fight with the Trump administration either over North Korea or over the South China Sea.

So, I feel that there is room for the U.S. to push China. For example, there have been talks about more sanctions on North Korea, so China already preempted that. We are already suspending our co-import from North Korea for the rest of this year. What else do you want? You have to be very specific. If you ask us to cut our aid, especially the energy transfer and our food supply to North Korea, the United States will have to answer difficult questions like — what if this creates a humanitarian disaster in North Korea. So, I think the United States has to be very specific about it wants China to do and stand ready to answer the counter-questions that the Chinese will raise.

KEI Intern Jennifer Cho assisted with transcribing this interview.

Image from USFK’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Why is China so upset about THAAD?

By Mark Tokola

The decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system in South Korea has been controversial in South Korea, and predictably has been condemned by North Korea, but, judging by headlines and official statements, seems to have upset the Chinese more than anyone else.  China has been vociferous that the THAAD deployment threatens not only to raise tension on the Korean peninsula but would destabilize the entire region.  At first glance, it seems hard to understand why China would be so opposed to a defensive system which has no use other than to shoot down missiles that are on their way to striking South Korean targets.  Following an extensive series of North Korean missile tests of exactly the type that THAAD would defend against, why would any country (with the probable exception of North Korea) take issue with South Korean self-defense – particularly when Pyongyang has explicitly threatened South Korea with missile attacks?

The main objection raised by Chinese representatives is that the U.S. has a hidden agenda, and will use THAAD’s radar system to look into Chinese territory.  U.S. commentators have noted in reply that the system is oriented towards the north, not the west, and reorienting it towards China would be detectable.  One might also ask, so what?  What would be so terrible about the U.S. being able to detect a Chinese missile launch sooner rather than later?  Seeking the means to learn early of an incoming attack would not seem to be a particularly belligerent desire.  It is worth noting that thirty-four nations, including the U.S. and Russia — but not China — are parties to the Open Skies Treaty which allows all of its parties unfettered aerial surveillance flights for the express purpose of looking into each other’s territory.  That is considered confidence-building, not destabilizing.

A further Chinese objection to THAAD is that the U.S. also secretly intends it to be part of a regional missile defense system which would ‘encircle’ China.  However, such a regional system would require a very public agreement among nations of the region, including Japan as well as South Korea.  Reaching such an agreement, and working out the technical implementation of such a system, would require a long, deliberative process whether South Korea deployed THAAD in the near-term or not.  THAAD does not need to be part of a regional system to achieve its aim of defending South Korea against a North Korean attack.

The argument has been made that because China has no understandable military reason to oppose the deployment of THAAD in South Korea, its objections to THAAD must be more about politics than about security.  China may have hoped that it could drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea by creating an issue that would stir up anti-American sentiment in South Korea or, optimally, that would produce an apparent defeat for the U.S. if China could persuade South Korea not to deploy the system.  U.S. officials were careful to adhere to the policy line that whether to deploy THAAD was a decision for South Korea, not a test of the alliance.  Nevertheless, a decision not to deploy THAAD would have given the impression of strengthening Chinese influence.  Another political motivation for Chinese objections to THAAD may have been to divert attention away from Beijing’s failure to stop North Korea from violating international obligations regarding nuclear and missile testing.

However, it seems likely that China’s objections to THAAD may actually include a genuine strategic element — but not in a way that China would publicly articulate.  Students of Cold War history will remember that the Soviet Union vigorously objected to U.S. development of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM), with the accompanying bilateral tension eventually leading to a 1972 ABM Treaty that lasted until 2002.  The Soviet Union’s objections to ABM were rooted in nuclear war-fighting doctrine.   The nuclear balance between the U.S. and the USSR created a situation that was termed Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD): an attack by either country would lead to the destruction of both.  Any initial nuclear attack would be met by a retaliatory nuclear attack, leading to what all recognized would be a nuclear Armageddon.  The logic of MAD required a credible “second strike” capability by both sides, i.e. that either the Soviet Union or the United States would be able to strike back against a nuclear attack.

The development of an effective anti-ballistic missile threated the nuclear balance by creating the possibility that the U.S. or the USSR would be able to launch a nuclear attack and then use ABMs to defeat the retaliatory strike – ensuring that one side actually “won” the nuclear exchange by striking first.  The U.S. argued that the ABM was not for the purpose of creating such nuclear superiority, but rather was intended to defeat an attack by a rogue nation with limited missile capability, or perhaps to counter an attack resulting from an accidental launch.  The most obvious way to overcome an ABM system would be to overwhelm it with additional ballistic missiles.  No one argued that the ABM systems of the twentieth century would be able to provide a one-hundred percent effective canopy.  Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was ill-prepared at the time to become involved in an expensive ABM arms race and the ABM Treaty was negotiated, under which each party was permitted to construct two 100-ABM missile complexes to protect key areas.  MAD continued.

Chinese military planners are certainly aware of this history, and even if they weren’t, would be driven by the same concerns that occurred to Soviet planners.  An effective ABM system would seem to create the possibility of defeating a second strike capability absent a ballistic missile building program large enough to overwhelm the ABM system.  Today, China would certainly prefer to develop what it would consider a sufficient strategic deterrent without having to become involved in an expensive arms race.

This is a long, long way from THAAD’s limited, defensive purposes but fits with China’s statements that THAAD has implications far beyond the Korean peninsula.  The intellectual connection between the Republic of Korea’s decision to install a means of national self-defense and China’s perspective on regional, even global, balances of power says two things about China’s view of foreign policy.  First, China has difficulty crediting the idea that there can be developments within Northeast Asia that are not really about China, i.e. that South Korea might have a specific interest in defending itself against a belligerent North Korea.  Second, China continues to assert what it considers a self-evident right to a sphere of influence in Asia, within which neighboring countries must give priority to China’s national interests.  China would be a more reassuring regional partner if it acknowledged that the cause of tension on the Korean peninsula is North Korea’s pursuit of offensive weapons, not South Korea’s deployment of defensive systems.

Mark Tokola is the Vice President of the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own. Image from Max Braun’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

 

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