In an unusually frank diplomatic move, South Korea pushed back against growing Chinese concerns about the deployment of U.S.-backed ballistic missile defense systems in South Korea. Without naming China, a spokesman for the South Korean Defense Ministry noted that other countries should keep out South Korean security policy debates. Kim Min-seok, the South Korean spokesman, noted that while ”a neighboring country can have its own opinion on the possible deployment of the Thaad system here by the U.S. forces in South Korea … it should not try to influence our security policy.” Kim’s comments left little to the imagination with regard to which possible “neighboring country” he was referring to.
China fired back, with its foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, telling a press conference that ”China’s position on the anti-missile issue is consistent and clear.” Hong continued to explained that the Chinese position was that ”countries must neither pursue their own security interests at the expense of other’s nor undermine regional peace and stability.” ”We hope that the relevant countries would be prudent in making this kind of decision,” returning Kim’s favor of not explicitly calling out South Korea.
Today’s diplomatic exchange highlights the persistence of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries as a thorn in the China-South Korea bilateral relationship. From China’s perspective, THAAD represents a considerable threat to Chinese ballistic missiles which would theoretically come into play in a nuclear weapon use scenario. From a Chinese perspective, a U.S.-allied state operating a highly advanced anti-ballistic missile system, even if not directed explicitly at China, is an unacceptable security risk. China’s THAAD fears are thus based primarily on broader issues related to the competition between the United States and China for strategic primacy beyond the first island chain.