Koreas | US missile shield in South Korea shakes up strategic balance

US missile shield in South Korea shakes up strategic balance

M.K. Bhadrakumar July 8, 2016 9:32 AM (UTC+8)
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China’s threat perceptions are going to deepen. Nuclear modernization can now be expected to be pushed higher on China’s policy agenda. THAAD, a common threat to China and Russia, will be a litmus test of the Sino-Russian strategic coordination and partnership. Their shared concerns over the US unilateralism should bring the two countries to closer cooperation in military technology.

The United States and South Korea have announced their decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in the U.S. Forces Korea on the Korean peninsula.

South Korea's Deputy Minister for National Defense Policy Ryu Je-seung, right, shakes hands with Eighth U.S. Army commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal after a joint press conference in Seoul announcing the agreement to deploy a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery
South Korea’s Deputy Minister for National Defense Policy Ryu Je-seung, right, shakes hands with Eighth U.S. Army commander Lt. Gen. Thomas Vandal after a joint press conference in Seoul announcing the agreement to deploy
a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery

The negotiations that began in February have successfully concluded.

The development has far-reaching consequences for the regional stability in the Asia-Pacific and the global strategic balance as a whole.

Washington and Seoul rationalize their decision in terms of the nuclear and missile threat posed by North Korea.

The plan is to deploy one Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery by end-2017, which comprises six mobile launchers, 48 interceptors, airborne radar and fire control system. A Xinhua report on the development explained that

  • The THAAD’s radar can locate missiles far beyond the DPRK (North Korean) territory, causing China and Russia to repeatedly voice serious concerns over the deployment. The X-band radar can spot missile as far as 2,000 km with forward-based mode and 600 km with terminal mode. As the two have the same hardware, the terminal mode, which South Korea allegedly plans to adopt, can be changed into the radar with a much longer detectable range.

The US-South Korean joint statement maintains that the THAAD will not target any other third country and will be operated only in response to the North Korean threat.

But the argument will not be any more persuasive than the US’s claim that its missile defense deployments in Central Europe are directed against the threat posed by Iran and are not directed against Russia. Unsurprisingly, China has reacted. A foreign ministry statement Friday said,

  • The US and the Republic of Korea, ignoring the clear position of other interested countries, including China, have announced the deployment of the US THAAD missile defense system in South Korea. The Chinese side expresses its extreme dissatisfaction and strong protest in this regard.

Beijing’s reference to “interested countries” means Russia. The joint statement by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was issued after the latter’s visit to China on June 25, had included a paragraph specifically on missile defense:

  • With a view toward the historical experience and practice of building a new type of great power relations, and with a sense of historic responsibility for world peace and humanity’s future, the two sides call on all nations of the world to … deepen mutual understanding, coordination and cooperation on the question of missile defenses, urge members of international society to be prudent on the issues of deploying and beginning cooperation on missile defenses, and oppose one country or group of countries unilaterally and unlimitedly strengthening missile defenses, harming strategic stability and international security. We stand for the collective confrontation of the challenges and threats from ballistic missiles, preferring to confront the proliferation of ballistic missiles within the framework of international law and political diplomacy, where the security of one group of nations cannot be sacrificed at the expense of another group of nations.

To be sure, Moscow will share Beijing’s concern over the deployment of THAAD in South Korea. What is at stake is not so much the technical capabilities of the THAAD system – both Moscow and Beijing would know its vulnerabilities – but about its upgrade in the future.

Russia and China suspect that the US intends to make them vulnerable to a US first strike. As the Union of Concerned Scientists commented in a recent report, it “isn’t the reality of the missile defense but the US’ dream of missile defense” that would worry Moscow and Beijing.

Russia and China would have been content with the global strategic balance resting on the idea of mutual vulnerability, which is after all the basis of deterrence.

But they suspect that the US is focusing on them through the massive decades-old missile defense program, with a view to realizing the dream of ‘nuclear superiority’, which remained elusive through the Cold War era.

 What lies ahead?

Nuclear modernization can now be expected to be pushed higher on China’s policy agenda. Beijing would see the THAAD as a starting point for improved and expanded US capabilities later.

China’s public rhetoric against the US’ missile defense, which used to be muted in the past, has been sharply rising of late.

The bottom line is that the deployment of theatre missile defense systems in Northeast Asia is becoming another major contentious issue between Washington and Beijing.

Beijing will not be far off the mark in seeing the US decision on the missile defense deployments in the Asia-Pacific in the context of the US’ broader re-balance strategy, which is a barely-concealed containment policy toward China.

Indeed, China’s threat perceptions would deepen. The point is, once they become operational, the US missile defense systems can threaten the very credibility, reliability and effectiveness of China’s woefully inadequate strategic nuclear arsenal.

The US’ ABM deployments in the border regions of Russia and China become a litmus test of the Sino-Russian strategic coordination and partnership. Their shared concerns over the US unilateralism should bring the two countries to closer cooperation in military technology.

Technical assistance from Russia could be a game changer for China’s nuclear modernization. On the other hand, economic factors are important for Russia’s own R&D on future weapons development and here China can play a big role in the funding of such programs.

The big question, however, remains: Would the two countries have the strategic congruence for pooling their resources together to overcome US missile defenses? For Russia, this is something like sharing its crown jewels.

At any rate, Russian Defence Ministry announced in May that the two countries would hold their first-ever computer-assisted missile defence drill:

  • The Russian and Chinese defense ministers decided to hold the first Air and Space Security 2016 joint computer-assisted command and staff exercise in May 2016 on the premises of the Central Research Institute of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Aerospace Defense Force to practice missile defense. The exercise will aim to practice combined operations of Russian and Chinese air and missile defense task forces to provide protection from accidental and provocative attacks of ballistic and cruise missiles.

Although the statement clarified that the drill was not directed against any third country, a noted Chinese military commentator and retired PLA colonel Yue Gang frankly admitted,

  • THAAD is a common threat to both China and Russia. This joint exercise will serve as a warning to the US and also mark the beginning of the two countries’ military cooperation following their diplomatic consensus (over the missile system).

Yue added that the combined military strength of China and Russia would enable them to defend each other in the event of a missile attack.

In the final analysis, much would depend on the response routes Beijing chooses. China has the economic wherewithal to embark on a nuclear modernization drive both in qualitative and quantitative terms.

To be sure, the best and the brightest minds in the strategic community in China would have begun applying to the vulnerabilities of China’s limited nuclear retaliatory capabilities and the range of possible Chinese responses – keeping in view their implications for regional security, Sino-US relations, as well as for global arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation.

A number of options are open for Beijing – increasing the number of ICBMs, deploying decoys or mobile ICBMs, developing technical counter-measures such as multiple re-entry vehicles, ‘space control’ (eg., anti-satellite system capable of attacking the ABM) and so on.

Each one of these possible responses would have significant consequences for arms control and non-proliferation.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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