The Chinese leadership and the overwhelming majority of expert Chinese observers and commentators are strongly opposed to the deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea. The sophisticated long-range THAAD X-band radar system seemingly worries China the most. Most Chinese believe that while perhaps providing some limited defense for South Korea against North Korean ballistic missiles THAAD is primarily intended to serve the much larger purpose of weakening China’s strategic deterrent while contributing to a global anti-missile system that threatens both Beijing and Moscow. The THAAAD decision worsens an existing strong sense of Chinese resentment against alleged efforts by the U.S. to peer deep into China from nearby areas and extract sensitive military information in order to degrade China’s security. More importantly, for most Chinese, the THAAD deployment decision also represents a kind of betrayal by South Korea and a related strengthening of Washington’s overall effort to counter or contain China. Until or unless Seoul abandons or significantly downgrades it, the THAAD system will almost certainly remain a major irritant in China’s relations with its Northeast Asian neighbors for the foreseeable future.

***

On February 7, 2016, South Korean and American military officials announced that their two governments had agreed to begin talks aimed at “the earliest possible” deployment in South Korea of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, known as THAAD, a system designed to shoot down short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles using interceptor missiles, launchers, a radar, and a fire-control unit.1

After months of subsequent discussion, on July 8, Seoul and Washington formally announced that the THAAD system would be deployed in South Korea.2  On July 13, Seoul announced that Seongju will be the location of the THAAD deployment.3 This decision, highly controversial within South Korea, followed a lengthy period of examination and debate marked by considerable foot-dragging on the part of Seoul, and continuous American pressure in favor of deployment.4

The South Korean government had long hesitated to approve THAAD in part because of strong resistance within South Korea and from China and Russia. However, the combination of additional North Korean missile and nuclear tests in early 2016 and a deterioration in the Seoul-Beijing relationship over the past year or so convinced conservative President Park Geun-hye to move forward with deployment, despite continued domestic opposition. In response to China and Russia, both Seoul and the Pentagon have stressed that the THAAD decision “would not be directed towards any third party nations.”5

In fact, despite Park’s February decision, it is by no means clear that Seoul will actually deploy the THAAD system. In recent months, Park’s administration has been rocked by a political scandal involving charges of extortion, fraud, and unethical influence-peddling resulting from the president’s relationship with an old friend and advisor, Choi Soon-sil. After months of massive anti-Park demonstrations in Seoul, the South Korean National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in early December to impeach Ms. Park. If the Constitutional Court votes to uphold the impeachment motion, Park would resign and a new election would occur within 60 days.6

Such a development would likely result in the suspension, modification, or outright rejection of the THAAD deployment decision, given the fact that the liberal and progressive opposition parties, and a large segment of the public, remain strongly opposed to the system.7

China’s reaction to Seoul’s decision to deploy the THAAD system has been strongly negative. For example, on the day of the February announcement, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin held an emergency meeting with the Republic of Korea’s ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, Kim Jang-soo, and delivered China’s opposing position.8

Beijing did more than just protest, however. After the decision was announced, the PRC Ministry of National Defense suspended its high-level defense dialogue with South Korea and postponed the South Korean defense minister’s visit to China.9 And the Chinese government did not send a high-level official as a main guest to attend the South Korean embassy’s annual National Day reception in 2016.10 In addition, China’s National Tourism Administration reportedly issued instructions to reduce the number of Chinese tourists to South Korea by 20 percent.11

Seoul’s decision to deploy THAAD, in the context of the turbulent and uncertain domestic situations on the Korean Peninsula, has become a major factor influencing stability not only on the peninsula but also in relations between both Koreas, China, the United States, and possibly other nations, such as Japan. In this challenging environment, it is critical to understand in greater detail the views of Chinese leaders and knowledgable observers regarding the THAAD decision and the politics surrounding it.

As in past issues of the Monitor, this essay divides Chinese sources into authoritative and non-authoritative categories. As explained in CLM 51, it dispenses with the category of “quasi-authoritative” sources altogether. The first section of the remainder of this article summarizes the authoritative Chinese viewpoint on the THAAD issue. The second section presents the non-authoritative outlook, identifying a wider range of viewpoints. Finally, the conclusion offers some thoughts on the ultimate meaning of the THAAD decision for the Chinese.

3 Jack Kim and Ju-min Park, “South Korea chooses site of THAAD U.S. missile system amid protests,” Reuters, July 13, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-southkorea-thaad-idUSKCN0ZT03F.

4 See Kim Soo-han, “North Korea smiling? THAAD controversy deepens divide within South Korea” (속으로 웃는 북한?…사드 논란에 남남갈등 최악 치달아), Herald Business, August 3, 2016, http://biz.heraldcorp.com/view.php?ud=20160803000310; Park Chul-hee, “Global focus - THAAD controversy: head and tails reversed” (글로벌 포커스 사드 논란, 머리와 꼬리가 바뀌었다), Chosun Ilbo, July 27, 2016, http://news.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2016/07/26/2016072602767.html.

5 Missy Ryan, “Pentagon to Deploy Anti-missile System in South Korea,” Washington Post, July 7, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2016/07/07/pentagon-to-deploy-anti-missile-system-in-south-korea/?utm_term=.932e24a9b3d5.

6 Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea Enters Period of Uncertainty With President’s Impeachment,” New York Times, December 9, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/09/world/asia/south-korea-president-park-geun-hye-impeached.html; Choe Sang-hun, “South Korea’s Impeachment Process, Explained,” New York Times, November 27, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/27/world/asia/impeaching-south-korea-president.html.

7Kim Tong-hyung, “S. Korean Presidential Hopeful Casts Doubt Over US Missiles,” Washington Post, December 15, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/south-korean-presidential-contender-says-seoul/2016/12/15/bbefd7ce-c29e-11e6-92e8-c07f4f671da4_story.html?utm_term=.2c56806d35b0; “South Korea’s Main Opposition Party ‘Takes Stand Against THAAD’,” TIME, August 28, 2016, http://time.com/4470154/south-north-korea-thaad-missiles-minjoo-party/; “South Korean political heavyweight proposes to halt THAAD discussion,” Xinhua, October 10, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-10/10/c_135743529.htm.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (hereinafter shortened to PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs), “Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying’s response to the question on whether China delivered its position to the US and ROK’s official initiation of their discussion to deploy THAAD system,” February 7, 2016, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/web/wjdt_674879/fyrbt_674889/t1339470.shtml.

Lee, Jeong-jin, “Storm after THAAD: All high-level Sino-South Korean military talks halt,” (‘사드 후폭풍’…한·중 고위급 국방대화 ‘올스톱’), Yonhap, November 6, 2016, http://www.yonhapnews.co.kr/bulletin/2016/11/04/0200000000AKR20161104109000014.HTML.  

10 Ye Young-jun, “Embassy reception used to host ministers and vice ministers, but China sends a bureau chief this year” (장·차관 오던 한국 대사관 행사, 올해는 부국장 보낸 중국), Joongang Ilbo, December 3, 2016, http://news.joins.com/article/20957953?cloc=joongang|article|recommend1.

11 Ibid.