China and Russia’s Angry Response to THAAD: Why and What It Means for the United States

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By: Annie Kowalewski, Columnist

On July 7th, 2016, the United States and South Korea announced their decision to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on the peninsula in response to North Korea’s continued nuclear tests and development of ballistic missile technology. The next day, China and Russia submitted a joint statement to the United Nations (UN) opposing the deployment of THAAD, stating that the deployment would upset the regional security balance. Although China and Russia’s objections and potential responses to THAAD do not immediately threaten the United States and its allies in the region, the move could push China and Russia to form a new strategic partnership. The United States should take measures to reassure China and Russia by stressing THAAD’s defensive purpose and keeping channels of communication open to acknowledge their concerns.

China and Russia’s Response

China and Russia have strongly objected to the United States and South Korea’s decision to deploy THAAD. During President Putin’s visit to China, China and Russia released a joint Presidential statement condemning THAAD as severely “infring[ing] upon the strategic stability” of the region, warning that THAAD will exacerbate the tensions in the Asian-Pacific region and possibly trigger an arms race.[i]

China and Russia believe that THAAD is part of Washington’s plan to contain their regional influence, despite US reassurances that THAAD is a “purely defensive weapon” aimed at countering North Korea’s missile threats.[ii] China and Russia have publicly provided several reasons for why they believe THAAD is actually meant to counter China and Russia rather than the DPRK. First, many Chinese and Russian officials believe that THAAD is insufficient at intercepting short and tactical-range missiles North Korea would use in an attack against South Korea.[iii] Second, officials believe the radar deployed with THAAD would have a detection range that extends beyond the Korean Peninsula into Russian and Chinese territory, allowing it to detect missile movement and intercept non-North Korean missiles.[iv]

US officials have attempted to respond to these concerns. First, even though THAAD cannot intercept short and tactical-range missile, it plays a vital role in contributing to a layered missile defense system and can counter the possibility of a detonation of a nuclear warhead at a high altitude because of its hit-to-kill capability.[v] Second, US officials stress that THAAD is not capable of countering advanced missile systems such as China or Russia’s.[vi] Finally, even though THAAD’s radar has the technical capability of detecting missiles further than the Korean peninsula, the United States notes that the THAAD radar would need to be deployed in ‘terminal mode’ – which scans for missiles at a shorter radar range – in order to intercept missiles from North Korea.[vii]

Despite reassurances by US officials, China and Russia continue to warn against the “irreparable consequences” of THAAD.[viii] This continued backlash reveals that China and Russia’s main reason for opposing THAAD is their fear of an expanding US missile defense system in the region that could contain their regional ambitions. That is, while China and Russia recognize that THAAD does not pose a direct operational threat to their territory, they are concerned about the precedent the deployment will set. China is concerned about increased US support to South Korea and Japan, and how that support might affect other areas of US-Chinese relations. Russia opposes THAAD largely on the same grounds as it opposed NATO missile defense in Romania. This indirect threat perception and long-term perspective will dictate how China and Russia will respond to THAAD, militarily or otherwise.

What China and Russia’s Response Means for the United States

While China and Russia have several military and economic options to counter THAAD in the short-term, none of these options pose a direct threat to US interests in the region. Militarily, Russia has suggested that it may deploy missiles on the Kurils Islands and notes its intentions to consider the THAAD deployment when deploying missile and ground units.[ix] China has hinted at boosting its missiles capability with multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) to overwhelm THAAD’s interception capabilities, in addition to developing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) to bypass US missile defense systems altogether.[x] However, neither of these projects have been confirmed and the Russian/Chinese economies are slowing, which suggests that both countries may have difficulty investing heavily in new capabilities.[xi] Economically, China has threatened to decrease trade with South Korea and reduce tourist flows. However, South Korea is China’s second largest trade partner and it seems unlikely that China would antagonize an important source of its economic growth. Chinese and Russian short-term responses to THAAD thus do not threaten vital US national security interests in the short-term.

However, in the long-term, THAAD’s deployment may lead to stronger security ties between China and Russia as they support their joint interest in thwarting Western domination in the Asian-Pacific. There has already been some speculation about the creation of a unified Russian and Chinese defense system, or a joint center for missile attack warnings.[xii] The THAAD deployment adds to the backdrop of more frequent China-Russian meetings, strained US-Sino/US-Russian ties and domestic instability in Russia/China, all of which pushes China and Russia closer together despite their lack of mutual security interests.[xiii] THAAD might just solidify a strategic partnership between two powerful nations aimed at diminishing US influence in the region.[xiv]

What the United States Should Do

Even though United States and its allies’ security interests are not immediately compromised by Chinese/Russian responses to THAAD, the United States should be wary of the long-term shifts in the region’s balance of power the deployment may bring by pushing Russia and China to form a strategic alliance. The United States can avoid this strategic shift by responding in two ways. First, to avoid pushing Russia and China closer together, the United States should not dismiss China and Russia’s fears surrounding THAAD and expanding US missile defense capabilities. The United States should continue to reassure China and Russia of its benign, defensive intentions through open, direct dialogue and maintaining transparency about the systems technical capabilities. Second, the United States should make it clear to China that as long as North Korea continues to expand its arsenal program, the United States will continue to expand its anti-missile capabilities in the region. The United States should emphasize that the best way to avoid more missile defense capabilities in the region is for China to fully enforce sanctions against North Korea and cooperate with its regional neighbors to weaken North Korea’s weapons program.

[i] “China, Russia sign joint statement on strengthening global stability” Xinhua News. Accessed September 27 2016.

[ii] “South China Sea, North Korea tensions at issue in Kerry-Wang Meeting” CNN. Accessed October 2 2016.

[iii] “THAAD more useful as stick against China than North Korean Missiles” Lowy Interpreter. Accessed September 27 2016.

[iv] “THAAD in South Korea: What Does It Really Mean for China?” The Diplomat. Accessed September 27 2016.

[v] “THAAD Issue Primer” Institute for China America Studies. Accessed September 27 2016.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] South Korea Needs THAAD Missile Defense” The Heritage Foundation. Accessed September 27 2016.

[viii] “Irreparable consequences: China, Russia Angry about THAAD in South Korea” Sputnik News. Accessed September 27 2016.

[ix] ]“Myth or Reality? Russian Missiles on Kurils in Response to THAAD in S Korea” Sputnik News. Accessed September 27 2016.

[x] “Why the US-South Korea missile shield could provoke China to develop advanced weaponry” The World Post. Accessed September 27 2016.

[xi] Not so scary: This is why China’s military is a paper tiger” The National Interest. Accessed September 27 2016., “Russia’s new lackluster economy means Putin simply can’t afford a new cold war” Time. Accessed September 27 2016.

[xii] “US strategy pushes Russia, China to create joint missile defense system” Sputnik News. Accessed September 27 2016.

[xiii] “Eurasia’s coming anarchy: risks of Chinese and Russian weakness” Foreign Affairs. Accessed September 27 2016.

[xiv] “China and Russia’s North Korea problem” East Asia Forum. Accessed September 27 2016.

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