China is apparently opposed to extending the range and payload of South Korean missiles, as is Japan. Opposition from the two neighbors could prove the final stumbling block in negotiations with the U.S about increasing the range and payload, which are restricted under a bilateral agreement.
Concerned that southwestern Japan could fall within the reach of South Korean missiles, Japan has been stepping up opposition to extending their range since President Lee Myung-bak's visit to Dokdo last month.
Since the negotiations between South Korea and the U.S. began in January of 2011, Washington has cited concerns from China and Japan as the main reason for maintaining the current cap, which limits the range to 300 km and payload to 500 kg.
Seoul wants to extend the range to 1,000 km and the payload to 1 ton.
China is closely watching the negotiations, according to one expert at a state-run think tank. "The Chinese Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and Communist Party all feel uneasy about extending the range of South Korean missiles to almost 1,000 km, since Beijing is only 950 km from Seoul," the expert said.
Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and other top brass there view any extension of South Korea's missile range as part of a U.S. strategy using regional allies to keep China in check.
"China will select new leaders in October and does not want to hear news about strengthened South Korean missile capabilities at a time of leadership change," said another expert. Beijing is apparently concerned that an extension would agitate North Korea, increasing tension in the entire region.
But both China and Japan have the capacity to build intercontinental ballistic missiles, so critics say they are in no position to oppose increasing South Korea's capacity.
China's DF-21C missile has a range of 2,500 km, while the DF-31A can travel more than 10,000 km. Japan, meanwhile, has a three-stage, solid-fuel rocket that can be turned into an ICBM. "China and Japan do not want South Korea's military status to rise," said one diplomatic source here.
Meanwhile, Seoul and Washington have apparently narrowed their differences in the talks, which have been going on for the last 21 months. It now seems likely that South Korea will be able to extend the range of missiles to around 800 km and the payload to over 500 kg.
But the U.S. is still apparently opposed to South Korea using solid-fuel boosters. Such rockets are stronger and require less time to prepare for launch.
Also, Washington apparently does not want Seoul to transform civilian rockets for missile use or vice versa. The two sides are hoping to wrap up the talks this month. "The time has come for the U.S. to decide," said a high-ranking Defense Ministry official here.