China and the World

Next Cuban missile crisis?

American plan for an anti-missile system to defend South Korea riles China

KCNA picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un giving field guidance at the Sci-Tech Complex

Perhaps he’s looking up THAAD on Google...

During one of those frequent periods of turmoil that stitches the end of one Chinese dynasty with the beginning of another, a plot was hatched around 2,200 years ago by would-be ruler Xiang Yu to eliminate his competitor, Liu Bang (better known in China as the Duke of Pei).

At a banquet where Liu was the guest of honour, Xiang asked his cousin Xiang Zhuang to perform a sword dance for the guests. The entertainment was a ruse: the real purpose was to assassinate Liu.

Although Xiang Zhuang missed his target, his deceit has been immortalised by the Chinese idiom: “Xiang Zhuang performs a sword dance, but his thoughts are on the Duke of Pei”. The phrase describes how a seemingly innocuous act can hide a more malicious intent. And that is exactly how China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has characterised the American proposal to deploy a new weapons system in South Korea (in fact, he quoted the idiom).

The Thermal High Altitude Area Defence system (THAAD) is an anti-missile system developed by the US military. According to Southern Weekend, the Americans have been urging South Korea to adopt it for a while. But formal talks to use it finally began last week following North Korea’s recent provocations (its test of what Pyongyang claimed to be a hydrogen bomb in January – see WiC309 – and its rocket launches last month).

Washington argues that the escalating threat from North Korea compels it to better protect the 30,000 troops it has stationed in South Korea. But China and Russia aren’t keen on the plan, with Hong Lei, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry urging “relevant parties to act cautiously” on THAAD deployment and warning that “no harm should be done to China’s strategic interests”.

“As the largest neighbour of the peninsula, China will not sit by and see a fundamental disruption to stability,” Foreign Minister Wang also asserted.

One of China’s main concerns is that a THAAD presence on the Korean peninsula is more of a bid to limit its own strike capability, rather than North Korea’s.

“THAAD, designed to track and destroy ballistic missiles at an altitude of 40 to 150 kilometres, has been put under suspicion about its operational effectiveness in South Korea, as hundreds of shorter-range DPRK missiles can fly at a much lower altitude,” the People’s Daily has reported, implying that the defence system is really intended to intercept missiles launched from further afield.

In order to track and destroy enemy missiles, THAAD uses X-band radar, which is another security concern for the Chinese. The radar is constantly operational, and thus able to monitor other military movements. The New York Times reports that the technology in question provides feedback over a radius of 2,000 kilometres. Hence a THAAD platform could theoretically gather intelligence from parts of China and Russia.

Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, contends that whatever might be gained from the sonar signals would be insignificant compared to the surveillance that the Americans already exact on China. That’s not likely to provide much comfort to the Chinese, of course. And the Russians are similarly concerned, comparing the situation around THAAD to the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 – hardly a comforting analogy, as the crisis in Cuba led the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon.

The counter argument is that the potential deployment of the missile network may open opportunities for new pressure on the North Koreans. There’s speculation that the Chinese were more willing to support tougher UN sanctions against Pyongyang for its recent round of missile and nuclear tests because of the talks about THAAD, for instance.

In the meantime, China continues to account for the vast majority of North Korea’s trade and investment, giving it more leverage in Pyongyang than anyone else. If Beijing really feels such anxiety about maintaining stability on the peninsula, its best course of action might be to pressure its ally to stop launching missiles.

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