THAAD Is Coming to China's Doorstep (But Beijing Has a Plan to Push Back)

The first of two THAAD interceptors is launched during a successful intercept test. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army

THAAD deployment would bring the United States and South Korea closer at the expense of China's security.

After months of negotiation, the United States and South Korea announced on July 8 their decision to deploy the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system in South Korea. During a press briefing, China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said that Beijing is “firmly opposed to the proposed THAAD deployment… and will take necessary measures to maintain national strategic security as well as regional equilibrium.”

Why Is China Opposed to THAAD Deployment?

China is opposed to THAAD deployment for several reasons. First, Chinese analysts believe that THAAD in South Korea is intended to intercept missiles launched, not from North Korea, but from China and Russia. THAAD has an operational range of 200 kilometers (km) and is designed to intercept missiles at altitudes between 40 and 180 km. Such altitudes, according to analysts from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), match the “terminal phase” of the intermediate, long-range and even intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), or those with ranges exceeding 3,500 km. PLA analysts also claim that they match the “mid-course phase” of medium-range missiles, or those with ranges between 1,000 and 3,500 km, including China’s DF-21 and DF-26 missiles. Because the direct threats to South Korea — including the Seoul area, where 40 percent of the South Korean population resides — are North Korea’s long-range artilleries and short-range ballistic missiles, THAAD, they believe, is clearly a mismatch against such threats.

Chinese analysts are particularly concerned about THAAD’s X-band radar. Even though it would be configured as a fire-control radar with a detection range of 600 km, it perhaps could be reconfigured as an early-warning radar, which allows a detection range exceeding 2,000 km. Such a range suggests that China’s missile activities on land and at sea in northern and eastern China may be mostly exposed. The radar allegedly can see the critical processes where warheads and decoys are released during China’s strategic missile tests. In times of war, it can undermine the reliability of China’s strategic deterrent because in comparison with Alaska-based radars, it is believed to be capable of acquiring more than ten minutes of early warning time against China’s strategic ballistic missiles. It can also differentiate real warheads from decoys. If integrated into the U.S. national missile defense network, this radar allegedly can increase the odds of success in intercepting Chinese missiles even at their “boost phase,” reducing further the reliability of China’s already small strategic deterrent and tilting the strategic balance in favor of the United States.

Moreover, Chinese analysts believe that the Korean Peninsula has historically been a nearby sphere critical to China’s security. They worry that by deploying THAAD, South Korea could share data with the United States and Japan on air traffic control, air defense, and early warning. This may help to integrate South Korea-based systems with U.S. and Japanese sensors and sea-based Aegis systems, with the goal of forming a trilateral strategic alliance to contain China at China’s door steps. Chinese analysts believe that North Korean nuclear tests were only an excuse used by the United States to deploy THAAD, the real U.S. intention being to drive a wedge between South Korea and China at a time when China-South Korea relations were improving substantially, as reflected in the countries’ booming bilateral trade and Park Geun-hye’s attendance at the Victory Day Parade in Beijing in September 2015. THAAD deployment would bring the United States and South Korea closer at the expense of China’s security. This could help the United States to stabilize U.S.-South Korea relations and prevent the possible loss of the U.S. military foothold on the Korean Peninsula.

Furthermore, Chinese analysts believe that THAAD deployment in South Korea may encourage Japan to import THAAD to compensate for the range deficiencies of its PAC-3 missile defense systems. They also believe that South Korea’s decision would not only harm South Korea-China relations, but also harm South Korea itself by removing its “strategic flexibility” in balancing among major powers and in handling North-South relations. By directly challenging China’s strategic security interests, some argue, South Korea has also set a bad example for China’s neighbors to follow if no substantial cost is incurred to South Korea. Finally, Chinese analysts claim that THAAD deployment would not deter North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, but instead may drive it to develop more and better nuclear weapons and missiles.

What Countermeasures Might China Take?