Seoul Must Not Kowtow to China's THAAD Demands

      October 27, 2017 12:43

      Following Chinese President Xi Jinping's re-election as head of the Communist Party, South Korea and China are discussing ways to overcome a bilateral dispute triggered by the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery from the U.S. here.

      China apparently wants South Korea somehow to acknowledge Beijing's claim that its "core interests" have been infringed upon. Such an acknowledgement may be a prerequisite to President Moon Jae-in's visit to Beijing, and it wants it put into a joint statement. The fact that the two sides are looking for ways to resolve the dispute is a positive development, but Seoul cannot agree to such a bizarre demand simply to pave the way for the president's visit.

      The purpose of the THAAD battery is to defend South Korea against North Korean missiles and has nothing whatever to do with China. The moment the North Korean nuclear and missile threats disappear, there will be no need to keep the THAAD battery. The systems are designed to intercept North Korean missiles, so their radars are not forward-acquisition types and have limited range. And even if they were set to long-range reconnaissance mode, they would be prevented from snooping on China's military maneuvers due to the earth's curvature and radar waves traveling in a straight direction.

      If China is seriously afraid of being spied on, it should raise the issue with Japan, whose THAAD systems are equipped with full-fledged forward-acquisition radars. In other words, China's core interests, whatever they may be, are in no way being infringed on, but Beijing has shown no interest in listening to Seoul's explanation. That is probably because it is only interested in the accusation itself and the leverage it can gain from it in bringing South Korea to heel and driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington. If the government agreed to the demand, China would achieve both aims.

      China itself has a long track record of snubbing international regulations and protocol and has been known to exact vengeance on countries to achieve its political goals. U.S. Senator Cory Gardner, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy, estimated South Korea's losses from China's unofficial boycott in retaliation against THAAD at US$12 billion. But if it kowtows to China's demands, it may end up losing far more.

      Back in 2000, when South Korea and China were engaged in a dispute over Chinese garlic imports, Beijing took the unreasonable measure of banning Korean-made cell phones and polyethylene. It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. At that time, Seoul acquiesced. If it had stood up to Beijing, China would not be behaving this way again.

      Any statement over the THAAD issue should not come before a summit between the leaders. If prior fine-tuning is necessary, China should heed the precedent of 2004, when the two sides were quarreling over Chinese distortions of history by claiming the Koguryo Kingdom as its own. The two sides reached a verbal agreement back then that said Seoul and Beijing will "understand and consider" the other side's concerns. That prevented bilateral relations from worsening. This kind of agreement would be much more appropriate.

      The THAAD dispute cannot be overcome solely by the South Korean government. It needs to persuade the U.S. to voice its stance as well. That means U.S. President Donald Trump, who visits Seoul and Beijing next month, could come to its aid. This is the time for close cooperation between Seoul and Washington.

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