THAAD heralds enduring shift in Beijing-Seoul ties over long run

By Jin Kai Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/14 20:28:39

South Korean President Moon Jae-in's policy on Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) deployment was somewhat confusing, until he gave his final political endorsement with a push from North Korea.

Moon's policy on the deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system had remained fuzzy at the beginning, shifting all the uncertainties onto the so-called domestic legal and environmental assessment procedures. For South Korea, being fuzzy over certain political decision that concerns major issues like THAAD deployment is understandable, but it can hardly be a wise choice and may in the end frustrate all powers involved.

Now, unfortunately, the uncertainties have been ruled out. Whatever follows, it will be very consequential, for both South Korea and China.

Naturally, China's reaction will remain firm and clear, as it has always been regarding South Korea's decision to deploy this highly advanced weapon system near China's doorstep. At this moment, it is however quite interesting and concerning to notice a public survey made by the Pew Research Center.

In Pew's Spring 2017 Global Attitudes Survey, only 34 percent of South Koreans in the poll view China favorably. By contrast, it was 61 percent in spring 2015, just before the decision of THAAD deployment was made jointly by Seoul and Washington.

A similar drop can also be found in the reports conducted by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies, a top private think tank in South Korea earlier this year.

Meanwhile, a Pew poll finds 84 percent of South Koreans viewed the US favorably in spring 2015, and it slightly dropped to 75 percent in spring 2017.

Public surveys can be circumstantial, depending on the questions and methodology, and public opinion can shift with domestic circumstances. Still, the above poll results seem to describe South Korea's relations with China and the US, especially in the past few years when deployment of THAAD became a hot issue in the region.

By reconfirming THAAD deployment, despite the deployment's consequential effects in the region, South Korea probably has laid a final cornerstone to a further strengthened alliance with the US, and made a  complete reversal regarding its China policy.

At least, this is how things appeared when Moon reconfirmed South Korea's special ties with the US, claiming that the "South Korea-US alliance was forged by shedding blood in times of war" and "will grow to become even greater and stronger."

Unfortunately, a stronger alliance with the US does not necessarily bring Seoul peace and reconciliation with the North, as this alliance seeks confrontational means to deter the North, and in return the North sees this as provocation, ending up with a spiral of escalation.

By "choosing sides" on crucial issues like THAAD deployment rather than, for example, staying neutral, Seoul has further limited its strategic room for maneuver in the region, especially with China.

Currently, Pyongyang and Washington have engaged in a new round of bickering and intense rhetorical warfare, both claiming their capability and strong will to launch a strategic strike when necessary. Pyongyang even outlined its detailed strike plan against Guam as its response to US President Donald Trump's previous warnings. This is what's happening after the deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea. So did THAAD bring South Korea more security and stability? Obviously, it barely did.

The installation of the THAAD system is actually a strategic lockstitch installed by Washington in the Korean Peninsula, and it is a very deliberate and well-calculated move. It caused a strong reaction from Beijing, but it also locks up both Seoul and Pyongyang in a regional power game through which the US intends to shape and reshape international relations in the region. For South Korea, the final deployment of the THAAD system might be a cornerstone to the long-standing US-South Korea alliance - but it won't change the nature of that relationship. Yet, the real problem for South Korea is that the deployment of THAAD will bring enduring changes to China-South Korea relations in the long run.

The author is a research fellow at Yonsei Institute for Sinology and a lecturer at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University in South Korea. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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