Why China Fears U.S. Missile Defenses

North Korea loves to cause trouble--except this time China might be the one on the recieving end.

Well it seems we might want to hold off on all the predictions of Seoul and Beijing joining hands and riding off into the sunset as Asia’s new power couple--at least for now.

China is quite upset at the prospect of South Korea acquiring America’s latest missile defense platform, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD for short. However, Xi Jinping might want to redirect his anger at the real problem and why President Park Geun-hye might be considering THAAD in the first place: North Korea.

But before we get to the heart of the matter, it seems appropriate to understand what THAAD is, what it can do, and why its important.

Back in November, I spoke to Dan Sauter of Business Development for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense at Lockheed Martin to get a better understanding of the system and its capabilities. Sauter explained that THAAD is “a key element of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) and is designed to defend U.S. troops, allied forces, population centers and critical infrastructure against short-thru-medium-range ballistic missiles.” He went on to explain that THAAD “has a unique capability to destroy threats in both the endo- and exo-atmosphere using proven hit-to-kill (kinetic energy) lethality. THAAD is effective against all types of ballistic-missile warheads, especially including Weapons of Mass Destruction (chemical, nuclear or biological) payloads. THAAD was specifically designed to counter mass raids with its high firepower (up to 72 Interceptors per battery), capable organic radar and powerful battle manager/fire control capability.”

THAAD also has one nice feature that is sure to get Beijing’s panties in a bunch--interoperability.

Sauter told The National Interest that THAAD is “interoperable with other BMDS elements, working in concert with Patriot/PAC-3, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, forward based sensors, and C2BMC (Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications System) to maximize integrated air and missile defense capabilities. THAAD is mobile and rapidly deployable, which provides warfighters with greater flexibility to adapt to changing threat situations around the globe.”

Now that we understand a little about what THAAD is and what it can do, why should China care?

It seems Beijing is concerned that THAAD could blunt at least some of their military capabilities--going so far as to utilize Chinese hackers to steal at least some aspects of its design according to various reports.

Here is why Pyongyang matters and could drive a THAAD deployment close to Beijing’s borders. With North Korea constantly rattling the saber and developing various types of long range missiles the United States and its allies are looking for ways to defend themselves--and THAAD could certainly be part of that mix. However, as Beijing knows all too well--and why they are so upset--such weapons could be used as a shield against Chinese missiles as well.

Over the last several decades China has been building a massive arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles. This would be a big part of any anti-access/area-denial strategy it would use against Japan and/or the United States. China’s nuclear weapons arsenal would be launched atop ballistic missiles as well. THAAD, if it were to be deployed to South Korea (which is far from a done deal, by the way), could at least in theory blunt some of the offensive firepower China is trying to deploy on both the conventional and nuclear side--double trouble for sure.

But while China might be upset at the prospects of more U.S. missile defense systems near its borders, this is a problem it hould have seen coming. Back in 2013, during the last big North Korea showdown, the United States moved THAAD to defend Guam from a possible North Korean missile attack.

The threat to China is quite clear. If North Korea were once again to create another crisis where the United States once more had to move additional missile defenses back to the Pacific and increase Aegis patrols as was done in 2013, Washington may just leave such defensive platforms in place. Back in 2013 when the crisis with North Korea was at its peak, I laid out the case for such a U.S. move and the repercussions in further detail:

North Korea may just provide the strategic rationale the United States needs to drop the veiled nature of the military and geostrategic components of its pivot to Asia...American military planners may decide to keep ever increasing amounts of ballistic missile defense systems forward deployed in East Asia for the next time North Korea threatens the region.