Taming the Tiger: China Checks South Korean Adventurism

By | March 15, 2016 | No Comments

A September 2013 test of the contentious THAAD system | Image: US Missile Defense Agency via Flickr

A September 2013 test of the contentious THAAD system | Image: US Missile Defense Agency/Flickr

North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing earlier this year led to a flurry of diplomatic action on the regional and international stage, and the March 2016 UN Security Council resolutions for sanctions against North Korea — “the most stringent yet” — have drawn much international attention due to the US-China coordination efforts needed for it to pass. But a shift in Chinese and South Korean understandings of the North Korean threat has caused a spurt of signaling and contestation by diplomats in Beijing and Seoul. With Pyongyang not willing to play into South Korean calls for “trust-building” and upsetting the stability that China seeks, security strategy planners in Beijing and Seoul are scrambling to find their own solutions for regional stability and national security. 1)For commentary on the growing public debate on North Korea’s nuclear future, see Adam Cathcart’s February 2016 post on calls for Chinese preparations for Korean contingencies.

Despite strides forward in the Sino-South Korean relationship under Xi and Park’s leadership, both leaders face a new hurdle following South Korea’s announcement (after a long rumor period) that they would discuss with the US whether to introduce the THAAD (Theater High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system onto the Korean Peninsula as a bulwark against the demonstrably growing North Korean nuclear threat.

In this post, Inho Choi, PhD student in the Department of Political Science at the Johns Hopkins University and MA graduate from the Seoul National University, outlines the recent Sino-South Korean debate over THAAD and evaluates its implications for Chinese views (and possible revisions) of the Northeast Asian security order. – Darcie Draudt, Director of Research

Taming the Tiger: China Checks South Korean Adventurism

by Inho Choi

Recent developments in the Northeast Asian strategic scene indicate a new Cold War–style rivalry between the US with its allies and other regional powers. After North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear test, a series of new security measures were taken by the countries in the region. In particular, the issue of THAAD (Theater High Altitude Area Defense, a component of the complex ballistic missile defense [BMD] network) deployment in South Korea has greatly increased tension between China and South Korea. For some, China even “appears angrier” at South Korea than at North Korea as Chinese opposition to possible South Korean THAAD deployment was stronger than its protest against the North Korean rocket launch. However, long-term trends reveal a more complex picture, even indicating China potentially building a regional military alignment in response to the US alliance architecture.

North Korean provocations in the past two months — its test of what Pyongyang claims is thermonuclear weapons and the launch of dual-use rockets — succeeded in provoking mutual wariness among countries, in particular between China and South Korea. At first, the Chinese response to North Korean provocation followed the usual line. Two days after the North claimed its first successful thermonuclear weapon detonation on January 6, the Chinese foreign affairs minister, Wang Yi, reiterated China’s three principles on the denuclearization of Korean Peninsula: “Keep realizing denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, safeguarding peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, and solving the issue through dialogue” [坚持实现半岛无核化、坚持维护半岛和平稳定、坚持通过对话解决问题]. 2)When North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, in 2013, China stated the same three principles: denuclearization of Korean peninsula [半岛无核化], peace and stability [和平稳定], and resolution through dialogue [保持接触沟通]. The first principle refers to the dissolution of North Korean nuclear weapons and also partially indicates the negative impact of the US deployment of a nuclear capable weapon system around the peninsula. The second is China’s protest against any radical and adventurous means to resolve the issue. The third mainly concerns the use of a diplomatic forum for resolution, specifically the Six Party Talks hosted by China.

China’s Korea Strategy: From Uncomfortable Ally to Responsible Power | Though China has maintained its special relationship with North Korea, North Korean provocations have at times undermined Chinese security interests. According to Myunghae Choi, a specialist on China-North Korea alliance relations, North Korea has wrecked havoc on numerous Chinese security initiatives by engaging in adventurism and pursuing bilateral negotiations with the US at the expense of China’s multilateral initiatives. For example, as its rapprochement with the United States starting in the 1970s, China attempted to mediate the relationship between its traditional ally and new friends. However, North Korea responded with such provocations as the Rangoon bombing in 1983, a North Korean attempt to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan during an official visit to Burma.

The same pattern has repeated throughout the North Korean nuclear crisis after it withdrew from the NPT. With its flagship track of the Six Party Talks, China tried to manage the North Korean problem within a multilateral diplomatic framework even while North Korea undermined Chinese efforts by engaging in nuclear weapon testing and dual-use rocket launches. However, Chinese pressure against North Korea steadily increased as it took the role of the responsible power after its rise in power. With an increased cost to inaction, China gradually deepened its participation in the US-led sanctions regime. Within the boundary of its three principles, China became increasingly cooperative in international efforts to sanction North Korean provocations as long as it does not seriously impair the stability of the North Korean regime.

Sino-South Korean Dispute on THAAD | Although China’s three principles alone fall short of the South Korean drive to add strong measures to the current sanctions regime against North Korea, they were at least a form of limited cooperation and matched up with its recent strategy toward the Korean Peninsula. However, when the South Korean government jointly stated with the United States that the two allies are officially starting talks on the establishment of THAAD  to defend against the North Korean threat, China’s response indicated a substantial change in direction. The Chinese concern about the BMD system in East Asia is at least a decade old. In one leaked cable containing secret US-China nuclear dialogue, the former Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei clearly outlined the reason why China considers the deployment of this type of BMD in the region to be threat to Chinese defense capabilities. Given its limited deterrence capacity against superior nuclear forces, he argued the deployment would undercut China’s deterrence policy thereby giving the United States a supreme position in the nuclear pecking order. 3)China currently has about 50-60 ICBMs and is developing its own BMD system, according to the US Department of Defense. Since this disrupts the current strategic balance, it would then make China explore alternative and more disrupting measures to secure its deterrence. He also believes the deployment of BMD radar would threaten Chinese ballistic missiles during the boost phase. Thus, it is better to keep BMD away from the region.

Granted, the THAAD debate is the extension of a larger debate on strategic balance. China may well have been exaggerating the adverse effect of the newly debated THAAD given that radars with expansive coverage are already established in Japan and Taiwan. Still, as the history of the debate shows, there is always a possibility that China recognizes, or at least frames for its own purpose, the THAAD debate to be at the core of the US-China strategic interaction.

On the South Korean side, from 2006 onward when former president Roh Moo-hyun announced his own indigenous missile defense program, South Korea has been seeking to enhance its defense against North Korean missiles. The deployment of THAAD is, in fact, only a part of a series of Korean efforts to boost its missile defense against the North Korean threat. According to the Marshall Institute’s analysis, they already possess two types of missile defense systems: three hundred PAC-2 low-tier missile interceptors and three KDX-III Aegis cruisers equipped with the Standard Missile-2 interceptors. The South Korean government has tried to upgrade its current equipment and purchase new assets, one being the THAAD system. The THAAD discussion has been on the surface since 2013, but after North Korea’s 2016 nuclear test, the discussion has quickened. About a month after the test, the Korean Defense Ministry announced it is officially discussing THAAD deployment with the US.

The first serious tension broke out when Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se met Wang Yi at the 2016 Munich Security Conference on February 11. The Chinese Foreign Ministry website reports that Wang Yi expressed China’s “solemn position” [严正立场] on the possible THAAD deployment and reported that it would be detrimental to “regional peace and stability” [地区和平稳定] and undermine “the strategic security interests of China” [中方战略安全利益]. Also, the Chinese Foreign Ministry reported that the ROK, in response to Wang’s protests, is willing to maintain communication with China as to whether to deploy the THAAD missile defense system. The adjective “solemn” seems to indicate a clear irritation on the Chinese part. 4)A quick search on the MFA website shows that the cases where China used the adjective “solemn” (严正) include: its request for Japan to admit its colonial chemical weapons program in China, its urging the British Parliament not to meddle with the internal affairs of Hong Kong, China’s protest against the visit by the former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui to the US, and Chinese protest against the passing of Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 2000. Though more recent cases have to be analyzed, these cases are representative of Chinese concern over its internal sovereignty and security, which is somewhat strange since THAAD seems to mostly concern its external security against other great powers. In Chinese diplomatic rhetoric, “regional peace and stability” usually means that the accused action is threatening the stable regional environment where China can peacefully pursue its development strategy. More remarkable is the mention of security interests which have been often used to justify China’s assertive behavior concerning matters of regime and national security such as separatist movements.

In contrast, for the same meeting, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides a different report. Dropping the explicit mention of the THAAD system, the Korean report only indicates that Wang Yi emphasized the importance of considering the interest and concern of neighboring countries when implementing “measures related to security” [안보와 관련된 조치] while generically mentioning Korea will further consult with China on matters relating to North Korea and its nuclear program.

The more explicit message of protest came two days after this meeting, on February 13, when Wang Yi revealed a slightly modified version of the three principles:

Firstly, under no circumstances could the Korean Peninsula be nuclearized, whether the DPRK or the ROK, self-produced or introduced and deployed [部署]. Secondly, there is no military solution to the issue. If there is war or turbulence on the Peninsula it is not acceptable for China. Thirdly, China’s legitimate national security interests [国家安全利益] must be effectively maintained and safeguarded.

Here, the Chinese denouncement of nuclear weapons development is more evenly targeted to both North and South. Also, the word “deployment” [部署] seems to imply China considers THAAD to be a nuclear-related asset since they use the same word when they refer to the deployment of THAAD. The most striking expression is “national security interest” [国家安全利益] which has been the first item in China’s three core interests since 2009. 5)The last secretary-general of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, Dai Bingguo, defined China’s three core interests in 2009: “1) preserving China’s basic state system and national security [维护基本制度和国家安全)] 2) national sovereignty and territorial integrity [国家主权和领土 完整]; and 3) the continued stable development of China’s economy and society [经济社会 的持续稳定发展].” See: Michael D. Swaine “China’s Assertive Behavior Part One: On ‘Core Interests,’” China Leadership Monitor, No. 34. “Core interests” refers to those issues where China cannot yield to the demands of other countries even though it means harming China’s ongoing peaceful development strategy. For example, the core interests usually included problems such as threats to regime security from domestic rebellions, territorial disputes, and the Taiwan independence problem. If Wang’s announcement does mean that China now takes the THAAD issue to be one of its core interests, the conflict around the issue will not easily subside.

In addition to denouncing the South Korean move toward more militarization, China proposed significant enhancement of using diplomatic tracks in solving the North Korean nuclear issue. On February 17,Wang Yi announced China’s vision of transition from armistice to peace [停和机制转换] in parallel with the denuclearization process. Also, providing a Chinese interpretation of the lesson from the Iran case, he emphasized the positive role of “the decade-long dialogues and negotiations” [对话谈判十年之久]. Chinese emphasis on the simultaneous use of diplomacy and sanctions against North Korea is nothing new, but the timing and the suggestion of the transition to a peace mechanism may imply a substantial increase of the Chinese urgency in solving the issue amid increasing militarization of the Peninsula. The Korean Peninsula is still officially in the state of war since the armistice agreement only means temporary cessation of hostility. Thus, the transition from an armistice to a peace mechanism would mean a substantial change in the security architecture of the peninsula and surrounding region including probably reducing the size of the US armed forces stationed in Korea.

In this respect, the Chinese proposal also overlaps with the North Korean request that the US should give up its antagonizing policy against North Korea [대북적대시 정책] which often refers to the activity of the combined US and Korean armed forces. Since peace and stability are the most important goals for China, they seem willing to offer concessions to the demand of North Korea to get to the negotiating table even before any substantial improvement in denuclearization.

However, the South Korean government has been resisting the Chinese pressure. In his phone call with Secretary Kerry on February 7, Minister Yun drew an opposite lesson from the Iranian nuclear issue proceedings. Unlike Wang, Yun stated that the Iranian case shows the need for the unified and solid will of international society [국제사회의 단합되고 확고한 의지] to implement diverse unilateral sanctions and pressures against North Korea in addition to the forthcoming Security Council resolution. Also, the day after Wang Yi’s suggestion of transition to the peace mechanism, the South Korean MOFA spokesperson plainly stated during the press briefing that the discussion of peace arrangement (평화협정) can begin “only after” North Korea shows its will to denuclearize. On THAAD, the spokesperson stated that its deployment will be dealt with in terms of the security and national interest of South Korea, and that it hardly has any effect on the security interest of China.

These diplomatic skirmishes indeed put the South Korean government in a difficult situation, and many criticisms from scholars and mass media in South Korea were raised against the policies of the Park administration regarding THAAD deployment. In fact, the North seemed to be quite sure that their strategy of provocation is working in its favor at the expense of the South Korean standing in the regional security architecture. A KCNA editorial succinctly summarized its perception of the danger in the recent South Korean move, writing, “the shameless puppet faction of Park Geun-hye just jumped into the role of the vanguard for the criminal imperialistic machination [강도적인 지배주의적책동] of the US, which tries to neutralize the military power of rapidly developing Asian countries, in particular the regional great powers (지역대국), with an MD system, and establish the shackle of political, economic and military control in the region.”

Dual Alliance Architecture: China’s Response to US Rebalancing | In view of the long-term trend in China-South Korea relations, North Korea’s bombastic statement seems to jump to a hasty conclusion. In fact, from a strategic perspective, shifting global politics and economics means that China needs a strong partnership with South Korea much more than any time in the past and certainly much more than that with North Korea. Professor Yan Xuetong of Qinghua University emphasizes the Chinese strategic need of neighborhood partnership in an interesting recent article. Emphasizing the mounting strategic rivalry between the US and China, professor Yan, the archetypical Chinese realist, argues for the need for Beijing to form alliances with “American allies” in Asia pacific. He claims these new alliances will guarantee the national rejuvenation of China [中华民族复兴] and the failure of the US rebalancing strategy. More interestingly, he is not suggesting taking away countries from the US alliance system. He is suggesting to construct an architecture of overlapping dual alliances so that China can prevent conflicts with neighbors thereby removing any pretext for American intervention. Somewhat surprisingly, in his scheme, the possibility of forming a security alliance with North is as low as that with Japan. He seems to suggest that if China is an ally of US allies, this complex configuration will effectively neutralize any strategic containment by the US against China.

In a similar vein, during a press conference in March 2015, Minister Wang also emphasized the rapid growth of China’s friendship sphere [朋友圈], boasting of its growing global network of partnerships with over 70 countries and a number of regional organizations. Though he does not use the term “alliance,” in spirit Wang’s friendship sphere sounds very similar to Yan’s dual alliance architecture. Being an important regional middle power, South Korea was even suggested as one of the primary target of Chinese peripheral diplomacy in the East Asian region by one Chinese analyst.

Taking stock of both short term and long term strategic configurations, the most recent diplomatic dispute between China and South Korea looks more like a case of the aspiring regional hegemon’s taming the adventurous potential ally rather than the gradual polarization of the regional security architecture against other great powers.

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1. For commentary on the growing public debate on North Korea’s nuclear future, see Adam Cathcart’s February 2016 post on calls for Chinese preparations for Korean contingencies.
2. When North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, in 2013, China stated the same three principles: denuclearization of Korean peninsula [半岛无核化], peace and stability [和平稳定], and resolution through dialogue [保持接触沟通].
3. China currently has about 50-60 ICBMs and is developing its own BMD system, according to the US Department of Defense.
4. A quick search on the MFA website shows that the cases where China used the adjective “solemn” (严正) include: its request for Japan to admit its colonial chemical weapons program in China, its urging the British Parliament not to meddle with the internal affairs of Hong Kong, China’s protest against the visit by the former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui to the US, and Chinese protest against the passing of Taiwan Security Enhancement Act in 2000. Though more recent cases have to be analyzed, these cases are representative of Chinese concern over its internal sovereignty and security, which is somewhat strange since THAAD seems to mostly concern its external security against other great powers.
5. The last secretary-general of the Foreign Affairs Leading Small Group, Dai Bingguo, defined China’s three core interests in 2009: “1) preserving China’s basic state system and national security [维护基本制度和国家安全)] 2) national sovereignty and territorial integrity [国家主权和领土 完整]; and 3) the continued stable development of China’s economy and society [经济社会 的持续稳定发展].” See: Michael D. Swaine “China’s Assertive Behavior Part One: On ‘Core Interests,’” China Leadership Monitor, No. 34.

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