Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Rockets' Red Glare

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

Rockets' Red Glare

Article excerpt

On July 7, 2016, the United States announced plans to deploy a terminal highaltitude area defense (THAAD) battery in South Korea to defend U.S. and allied forces better against North Korean ballistic missiles. China's response to this announcement was strikingly strident. The following day a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson expressed China's "strong dissatisfaction with and firm opposition to the decision" and said that the deployment of THAAD will "gravely sabotage the strategic security interests of regional countries including China"1 Several articles in the China Daily over the next few weeks described THAAD as a "clear, present, substantive threat to China's security interests" and compared THAAD's deployment to a stark example of strategic brinkmanship, stating that "the negative influence of the deployment of THAAD in the [Republic of Korea] is similar to that of the Cuban Missile Crisis."2 China's opposition to THAAD has continued since the first components of the system arrived in South Korea and became operational in the spring of 2017.3

Unlike the nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that the Soviet Union placed in Cuba in 1962, THAAD is a defensive weapon with limited capability and capacity, so it raises the question of why China so vocally opposes this regional ballistic-missile defense (BMD) system. Chinese media sources suggest three reasons for opposing THAAD in the Republic of Korea (ROK). First, they claim that THAAD exceeds South Korea's security needs and will spark an arms race on the Korean Peninsula. Second, they claim that THAAD's radar will threaten China's nuclear-deterrent forces, upsetting the strategic balance. Third, they fear that fielding an advanced BMD system in Korea will reinforce and reshape U.S. alliances in Northeast Asia, both by tightening the alliance with South Korea and by fostering a trilateral U.S.-ROK-Japan security relationship. In a July 9, 2016, editorial, the China Daily outlined Beijing's argument against THAAD. "[I]t will not only escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, but also break the strategic balance and widen the trust deficit among the regional powers. . . . Washington is trying to drive a wedge between Beijing and Seoul, and reinforce the US-JapanROK military alliance."4

How should the United States evaluate these three concerns, and what are the implications for U.S. policy? This article will describe the decision to deploy THAAD, placing it within the context of U.S. and Chinese policy toward the Korean Peninsula. Next, each of China's three concerns about THAAD will be reviewed to analyze the theoretical underpinnings and assess the relative significance of each. The analysis will find that THAAD is not likely to spark an arms race on the Korean Peninsula, which suggests that China's fear of a security dilemma there is insincere. China's second concern-about strategic stability and the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent-appears to be more sincere, but it overestimates THAAD's limited contribution to the U.S. homeland-defense BMD system. Although the third concern has not been discussed in the Chinese media as thoroughly, it is likely that THAAD's potential to strengthen America's bilateral alliance with South Korea and to advance trilateral relations among the United States, South Korea, and Japan worries China most. In response, the United States should ignore warnings of a Korean security dilemma, address strategic stability questions, and- most importantly-harness concerns about strengthening alliance relationships so as to spur China's cooperation in denuclearizing North Korea.

THE KOREAN SECURITY ENVIRONMENT, BMD, AND THE DECISION TO DEPLOY THAAD

The United States and China are the two most significant outside powers with an interest in the Korean Peninsula. Both countries have a shared interest in a nuclear-free North Korea, but from that starting point their policy goals diverge. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel R. …

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