The Buzz

This Is Why China Fears THAAD

On Feb. 7, the United States and South Korea decided to begin official discussions on deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula. In response, Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Qiu Guohong said that deployment of the system could destroy the Beijing-Seoul relationship “in an instant.” The floor leader of South Korea’s ruling Saenuri party, Won Yoo-cheol, called Qiu’s remarks “rude,” saying that they “disregarded the sovereignty and the security of the Republic of Korea.” While some analysts see China’s blunt position on this issue as a way to drive a wedge in the US-ROK alliance, Beijing’s motivations are defensive. China’s leadership is concerned about THAAD at the strategic level and sees the system as part of a broader US strategy to contain China.    

THAAD in South Korea does not pose a direct threat to China. THAAD is an anti-ballistic missile system designed to destroy short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their terminal phase, meaning that the system cannot intercept missiles during their boost or mid-course phase. THAAD on the Korean Peninsula, therefore, cannot intercept Chinese missiles heading toward the United States. The X-band radar that is part of the system would be positioned and configured in “terminal mode” to intercept missiles originating from North Korea, instead of being used to scan deep into China. Deploying THAAD would not directly affect China’s nuclear second-strike capability vis-à-vis the US. Instead, the system would complement the Patriot system already in South Korea by adding an additional layer of protection and bolster deterrence against North Korea by increasing uncertainty of its capabilities and complicating its security calculations.

Beijing must be aware of this. Why, then, is it so fiercely opposed to THAAD?    

One widely-touted explanation is that China seeks to drive a wedge in the US-ROK relationship by attempting to wield a veto over South Korea’s decision-making. As Adm. Harry Harris, commander of US Pacific Command, recently put it, it is “preposterous that China would try to wedge itself between South Korea and the United States for a missile defense system designed to defend Americans and Koreans on the peninsula.” This is a plausible, but not complete, explanation. China might see the US-ROK alliance as “a weak link,” but only in a relative sense. There are 28,500 US troops on the Korean Peninsula to act under the US-ROK wartime combined command, and the alliance is stronger than ever. Pressuring South Korea to stand down on THAAD would add friction but not break the alliance. Chinese do not issue unusually blunt statements on the system just to obtain marginal benefits.    

To understand Chinese concerns about THAAD, first note that China sees the US as determined to maintain its place as the leading global power and unwilling to allow China to take its rightful place within the international order. As Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying notes, “China is politically treated as an alien and militarily seen as a potential target [by the United States]. Some of its alliances show the intention to take China as the source of security threat.” The Chinese believe that China is “hemmed in on all sides by the US, Japan, Taiwan, ASEAN countries, and Australia, and facing an increasingly unilateral, even imperialist, America” and perceive that Washington is redoubling efforts to contain China by “rebalancing” to Asia. Plainly, Beijing sees a more insidious motive behind the US push to deploy THAAD: containment of China with a regional missile defense network and increased US-Japan-ROK security cooperation.