China’s Real Objection to Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)

Photo Credit: Kashmir Observer

By Melanie Campbell, Columnist

North Korea’s most recent missile test on February 7, 2016 – just over a month since it conducted its last nuclear test – has only confirmed to the international community that North Korea is a serious and growing nuclear threat. Although North Korea claimed the most recent launch was to carry an observation satellite, both the United States and South Korea condemned the launch as a cover to test a ballistic missile. [i]

In response to the test, the United States and South Korea have agreed to begin working-level talks over the possible deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defense system on the peninsula. [ii] In expected fashion, China immediately condemned the decision, stating it was “deeply concerned” over the deployment of the system. [iii] China’s publically-stated reasons for opposing THAAD – that it’s a threat to its strategic deterrent – are unfounded, and China has made no serious attempt to demonstrate the validity of its claims. In reality, the likely reason China opposes THAAD is that it views the move as an attempt by Washington to contain China by undermining Beijing’s relationship with South Korea and strengthening the US alliance network in Northeast Asia.

THAAD is designed to intercept short, medium, and some intermediate-range ballistic missiles during their terminal phase of flight. The AN/TPY-2 X-Band radar that is deployed with the system is extremely sensitive and can acquire targets in their ascent phase and precisely track them through their terminal phase. This level of accuracy allows interceptors to use hit-to-kill technology rather than warheads to destroy the incoming missile. [iv] This makes it particularly useful against North Korea’s nuclear threat – a pure kinetic energy hit decreases the chances of the missile exploding and releasing radioactive material. [v]

China has vocalized two chief concerns over the deployment of THAAD. The first is that THAAD could be used to intercept Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which would erode its strategic deterrent by weakening its second strike capability. However, Chinese ICBM launch points are outside of THAAD’s interceptor range of 200 km, which has a maximum reach of the Korean Peninsula. THAAD is only designed to intercept inbound missiles during their terminal phase, but the trajectory of a Chinese ICBM launched at the United States would require the missile to be intercepted during the boost or midcourse phase. [vi] Unless China plans on launching a missile at South Korea, THAAD poses no threat to Chinese ICBMs.

China’s second concern is that the increased range of the radar deployed with THAAD could allow the United States to look deep into the mainland and gain valuable information about the position and composition of its strategic arsenal. It is important to note that the AN/TPY-2 radar has two modes – forward based, which range covers China, and terminal, which has a much shorter range that extends over the Korean Peninsula. To optimize its ability to intercept missiles from North Korea, the radar would need to be deployed in terminal mode, which does not have the range to detect Chinese missiles. Although the radar can shift between modes, putting it in forward based mode means the radar cannot cover North Korea, obviating the primary reason South Korea would allow THAAD deployment on its territory. [vii]

From a military standpoint, it is obvious that THAAD is not a direct threat to China’s strategic deterrent. So why has China repeatedly objected to its deployment? Beijing has long been sensitive to any perceived attempts by the United States to contain China, and views THAAD as an attempt to shore up Washington’s regional alliance network rather than a response to North Korean provocations.

China has spent an increasing amount of effort to improve its bilateral ties with South Korea, and has warned that THAAD would be the end of the relationship. In China’s view, accepting THAAD is a clear signal from South Korea that it prioritizes the United States over the emerging partnership. [viii] In addition to economic and trade ties, China and South Korea have emerging overlapping interests in the region, including the stability of the Korean Peninsula. More importantly, South Korea’s growing role as a middle power could allow it to play a mediating role between China and other countries during an era of maritime disputes and strained relations resulting from China’s great power ambitions. [ix]

Of even bigger concern to China is that THAAD could represent the beginning of a trilateral security coalition between the United States, Japan, and South Korea. [x] Historical animosity has been an impediment to Japan-South Korea cooperation, but the climate may be changing. Japan’s recent apology over the long divisive comfort women issue suggests that both countries are open to the possibility of resolving other differences in the relationship. [xi] Deploying THAAD would allow South Korea to integrate its system with the already existing network of US and Japanese radars, creating a springboard for cooperation on other security issues, especially in the South China Sea. With Japan and South Korea representing two important powers in the region, the trilateral coalition would be a significant shift in the balance of power in the Northeast Asia and a threat to China’s regional ambitions.

Recent tests demonstrate the North Korean nuclear threat is real and growing. Although it is prudent to keep China’s concerns in mind, the United States and South Korea should not let Chinese concerns prevent them from deploying THAAD, especially if both countries decide it is in their best security interest to do so.

[i] Shannon Tiezzi, “North Korea Launches Rocket; US, South Korea Consider THAAD,” The Diplomat, February 7, 2016, accessed February 21, 2016,

[ii] Yi Whan-woo, “THAAD talks will begin this week,” The Korea Times, February 21, 2016, accessed February 21, 2016,

[iii] Jane Perlez, “North Korea’s Rocket Launch Frays Ties Between South Korea and China,” The New York Times, February 10, 2016, accessed February 21, 2016,

[iv] John K. Warden and Brad Glosserman, “China’s THAAD Gamble Is Unlikely to Pay Off,” The Diplomat, April 15, 2015, accessed February 20, 2016,

[v] “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD),” Missile Threat Project, accessed February 20, 2016,

[vi] Bruce Klinger, “South Korea Needs THAAD Missile Defense,” The Heritage Foundation, June 12, 2015, accessed February 20, 2016,

[vii] Ian E. Rinehart, Steven A. Hildreth, and Susan V. Lawrence, “Ballistic Missile Defense in the Asia-Pacific

Region: Cooperation and Opposition,” Congressional Research Service, April 3, 2015, accessed February 20, 2015,

[vii] Shannon Tiezzi, “China Warns THAAD Deployment Could Destroy South Korea Ties ‘in an Instant’,” The Diplomat, February 25, 2016, accessed February 25, 2016,

[ix] Alain Guidetti, “South Korea and China: A Strategic Partnership in the Making,” Geneva Centre for Security Policy, July, 2014, accessed February 24, 2016,

[x] “Missile Defense for Korea,” The Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2015, accessed February 24, 2016,

[xi] Doug Bandow, “China and Other Issues Between Japan and South Korea,” The National Interest, January 2, 2016, accessed February 24, 2016,




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