The specter of Chinese warplanes buzzing U.S. and Japanese planes adds urgency to U.S. pressure for high-altitude defense in Asia against a still more formidable threat: that of missiles fired by North Korea and maybe even China.
Both the Pentagon and Japan’s defense ministry have protested the close calls with Chinese planes while China threatens still more of them and complains about U.S. dreams of installing a “Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense” system in South Korea.
China, North Korea and, most recently, Russia all seem to fear that installation of the advanced missile-deterrence on South Korean soil would increase the danger of a regional war despite U.S. assurances that the system would only be to ward off missile attacks on South Korea and Japan.
The controversy surrounding installation of the system, known by the acronym THAAD, coincides with increasingly aggressive moves by China.
The Pentagon has complained that a Chinese plane came within 20 to 30 feet of a Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane that the Chinese apparently believe was coming too close to a major submarine base on Hainan Island off its southern coast. Japan on several occasions has accused Chinese planes of menacing its aircraft around the Senkaku Islands, the cluster known as the Diaoyu by China.
The Chinese have responded not only with denials but also with warnings for U.S. planes to stay away while, of course, challenging Japanese control over the islands in the East China Sea.
Outcries against THAAD add a new dimension to the entire confrontation.
Russia’s foreign ministry has warned that installation of THAAD would “trigger an arms race in Northeastern Asia.” China’s foreign ministry has said such a system would “not be in the interests of regional stability or strategic balance.” North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency, claiming the purpose of THAAD is to attack the North, finds it “incomprehensible that missile defense system that requires vast amount of capital is to deter our missile attacks.”
The U.S. concept of THAAD – an integral part of an overall plan for defense against high-altitude missiles that might be fired against Japan as well – has provoked misgivings among top South Korean leaders. China’s President Xi Jinping, during his visit to Seoul in early July, reportedly asked President Park Geun-hye for “consideration” of the scheme.
Beijing’s objections put Seoul in a difficult position. President Park is reluctant to risk offending or upsetting China, by far its largest trading partner, but also needs to work closely with the U.S., the military ally that’s guaranteed South Korea’s survival since the Korean War. Korea, naturally, has its own Korea Air Missile Defense system, which some Korean officials say is all that’s needed.
American defense officials have been campaigning to win over support in Seoul for the system. The deputy defense secretary, Robert Work, in a recent visit expounded on the virtues of “interoperability” between the U.S. and Korean systems. The U.S. commander in South Korea, General Curtis Scaparrotti, briefing members of the South Korean national assembly’s defense committee, told them the system was to defend South Korea against the North, not against China, which he doubted would really object once the system was deployed.
Korea may yield to U.S. pleas but only if the U.S. is willing to foot the entire bill and also make other key concessions. The price tag for a single THAAD installation is likely to climb above one billion dollars with a raft of defense manufacturers, led by Lockheed Martin LMT -0.06% Space Systems, making it happen.
In the bargaining game, Koreans are likely to ask the U.S. to make concessions on OPCON, the scheme under which the South Korean command is to be ready to assume full control over all forces, including the Americans, if war breaks out again on the Korean peninsula. Korean commanders have said repeatedly that they’re not ready for OPCON, which they see as a costly, technically difficult undertaking that may actually compromise the defense of South Korea.
At the heart of Korean questions about THAAD is whether it really would serve the interests of South Korea. The argument in Seoul is that North Korea, if it attacks the South, would be firing rockets and short-to-mid-range missiles at relatively low altitudes where as the THAAD system is designed to knock out missiles at much higher altitudes.
Jang Cheol-wun, a researcher at Kyungnam University’s Institute of Far Eastern Studies, describing THAAD as “highly controversial,” said it was “designed to destroy medium-range ballistic missiles” at altitudes up to 150 kilometers, 93 miles. “North Korea’s short-range missiles,” he said, do not go higher than 40 kilometers – within range of “a lower-tier interceptor system” that would be “more suitable for intercepting short-range missiles of North Korea.”
Jang put the controversy over THAAD in the context of U.S.-Chinese face-offs in Asia.
“The expansion of China’s global influence collides with the United States’ ‘Rebalance to Asia Policy,’” he wrote. While the U.S. seeks “world class military superiority” with “cooperation from Japan and South Korea,” he said. “South Korea is placed in an awkward position, unable to ignore China’s position with strong economic relations and influence on North Korea.”
Therefore, said Jang, “South Korea must be cautious and prudent over the issue of deploying THAAD to South Korea.”