You’re Fired: What’s Next for South Korea’s Relations with the U.S. and China?

Dr. Andrew Gawthorpe on the impeachment of South Korea’s President and its ramifications on regional security.

The wave of unrest against political establishments sweeping the globe has claimed another victim, and she could be one of the most consequential yet. South Korean President Park Geun-hye has been impeached following a corruption and cronyism scandal which shocked South Korean society.

Her removal from office comes at a delicate moment in the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, amid growing doubts about America’s commitment to the region. The new U.S. administration of Donald Trump has questioned old alliances and pledged to shift the burden of regional security from Washington to states such as South Korea and Japan. Even more consequentially, Trump has ditched U.S. support for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement which was designed to deepen links between the U.S. and Pacific states.

Meanwhile, Beijing has capitalized by extending its influence around the region, rewarding states such as the Philippines which have aligned themselves more with China’s interests and seeking to isolate and punish those who do not. Foremost among those in the latter category was South Korea under President Park’s rule, which enraged Beijing by agreeing to the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system to its territory.

With President Park gone, the next South Korean government is likely to be composed of leftists who are more skeptical of the United States and inclined to take a conciliatory policy towards both North Korea and China. This government will be faced with a decision over the future of the U.S. missile system, known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), which is currently being deployed.  

Beijing has objected strenuously to the deployment of the system and targeted the South Korean economy with boycotts and cyberattacks in an attempt to force Seoul to abandon it. With few means of striking back against its giant neighbor, South Korea has been left to soak up the punishment.

The decision taken by the next government on THAAD will have broad implications for regional security. As its name suggests, the system is designed to defend against ballistic missiles in their “terminal” phase, as they descend to earth. It is a purely defensive system which would do an excellent job of intercepting North Korea’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles were they to be launched at South Korea. This alone does not seem to justify the extent of Chinese anger at its deployment – after all, as a defensive system, it does not threaten Beijing.

To understand both why China views THAAD so negatively and its broader implications for regional security, we need to look beyond its primary purpose. As well as being capable of intercepting North Korean missiles, THAAD also has sophisticated electronic monitoring capabilities that would allow it to track intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from China against the United States. Although it could not shoot down these missiles – it only works when they are in their terminal phase – Chinese strategists might reasonably worry that the information it provides would help track their missiles and boost U.S. defenses against a Chinese nuclear strike. In turn, this might undermine the strength of China’s nuclear deterrent.

But any military advantage provided to the United States by THAAD’s data would be small.  Instead, we should look to the political implications of the deployment to understand why it drives Beijing so crazy. China chafes at the deployment of military assets so close to its borders because of the political links they signify between the U.S. and its allies. As China grows in power and looks to extend its own influence throughout the Asia-Pacific, it wants to draw regional states away from the U.S. and into its own orbit. Driving U.S. influence away is the best means for Beijing to reshape the international order of the Asia-Pacific in a way which most suits its own interests.

There is also a deeper and more long-term military reason for China to seek to deny the U.S. willing allies in its backyard. Although the Chinese military remains decades behind the U.S. in many respects, it is seeking to develop strong anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities.  Its aim is to make it extremely difficult for the U.S. military to operate anywhere near China’s shores, thus ensuring the country’s security and giving Beijing a free hand to pursue its regional interests without U.S. interference.

In this context, depriving the U.S. of nearby bases and helpful allies is a necessary step in Beijing’s plan to militarily dominate its near abroad. Militarily, THAAD is nearly inconsequential in this struggle between the U.S. and China. But politically, South Korea’s decision to allow the deployment of more U.S. military assets flies right in the face of Beijing’s long-term goals for the region.

Although THAAD may be fully deployed before the next government comes into office, we can expect Beijing to place South Korea under enormous pressure to remove it. By continuing to impose economic and other costs on Seoul until it does so, while holding out the carrot of better relations – and perhaps more cooperation in containing North Korea – China could score a huge coup by driving a wedge between the U.S. and its ally. And with Donald Trump in the White House, anything seems possible.

Dr. Andrew Gawthorpe is lecturer in Contemporary Military History and Security Studies at Leiden University.

Photo by tkazec