Frozen over THAAD

It can be a little intimidating (not to mention annoying) when your brother is constantly plotting to kill you and makes a no secret of it. After all, you’re living under the same roof, and you never know when he might actually carry out his ‘grand plans.’ If he occasionally makes a show of chasing you around with his knife, it would indeed be natural for you to seek some measure of self-defense.

Well, that’s what’s currently happening in the Korean peninsula. Only, while one parent insists that you should be allowed some ways to defend yourself, the other insists that such measures will destroy the family relationship.

On February 7th, United States and South Korea began official discussions on deploying the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean peninsula.[1] Talks about deploying THAAD has been ongoing in the background for some time, but South Korean military-political leaders have been very cautious about making the decision; it was only after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in early January and a long-range rocket test in February[2] that President Park finally decided enough was enough.

But what exactly is THAAD system? As you might guess from the name, its purpose is primarily defensive; it is a defense system designed to shoot down short, medium and intermediate ballistic missiles.[3] No harm in wanting to shoot down a missile coming to destroy your homeland, right?

Unfortunately, in the world of politics, the answer is no. When Korea and US jointly announced the official decision to deploy THAAD, China and Russia strongly criticized the act and blamed South Korea for “undermining regional stability and flagrantly damaging the security interests of neighboring powers.”[4] The reasoning behind it is that would “undermine strategic security” of China, as it would enable US to nullify the power of Chinese nuclear missiles, giving the US a significant military advantage over China. Of course, South Korean and US military tried to persuade that this won’t be the case- you can read further about why THAAD is not a security threat to China from here.


Regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong, it is an unquestionable fact that THAAD has forced ROK-China relation to enter a new ice age. China has been imposing diplomatic and cultural pressures on South Korea; Chinese Foreign Minister (FM) Wang Yi expressed “firm opposition” in a meeting with South Korean FM Yun Byng-se on this Wednesday,[5] and Chinese television networks have deleted images of South Korean K-Pop stars in their programs.[6] In turn, South Korea’s presidential office rebuked China’s blames on South Korea “out of place.”[7]


“THAAD has forced ROK-China relation to enter a new ice age.”

So why is China so angry with THAAD if it’s not a serious security threat? After all, China rejected the offers from the US and South Korea to provide a technical briefing regarding THAAD’s capabilities.[8] This could possibly mean that the reasons for Chinese opposition to THAAD may not be purely military, but political.


Possibility 1: Revival of Sino-centrism

One of the arguments runs, China may be trying to reestablish the traditional hierarchical international order in Asia. For a long time, the Sino-Korean relationship was dominated by China, and as the regional hegemony at the time China received tributes from its ‘younger brother,’ Korea. Not only that, China often intervened extensively in Korean politics and military issues. So it’s not a surprise that there are voices of concerns that China is now inclined to treat South Korea and its relatively weaker neighbors as tributary states[9]. They argue that the rising level of nationalism within Chinese population- a result of state-censored history education- has now inspired a revival of Sino-centrism; now that China is once again the regional hegemony, it wants more ‘show of respect’ from its neighbors.


Possibility 2: China’s Paranoia

Another possible source of explanation is the tense Sino-American relationship. Despite its extravagant spending in the military, China still lags significantly behind the US in terms of its military capacity. People were caught off-guard with China’s rise; they never expected China to achieve such prosperity and power in such a short span of time. Although impressive, this has resulted in a situation where its neighboring states have had too little time to become accustomed to the ‘new China’ and the idea of Chinese hegemony in the region. Surprise yields uncertainty, and uncertainty yields fear; fears about the consequences of China’s dominance in the region have compelled many of China’s neighbors to regard China as a “source of security threat,” according to Chinese Vice FM Fu Ying.[10] Being surrounded by hostile neighbors can make anybody nervous, especially when you have a world-boxing champion supporting them. In China’s eyes, THAAD, although not a physical security threat, is a psychological one- it is a symbol of US’s intention to contain China by strengthening US-Japan-ROK security cooperation.


Possibility 3: More Moderate Measures Wanted

A third possibility may be that China is genuinely concerned about the security of East Asia. The logic is this: if South Korea and the US keeps pushing for the “radical” measures against North Korea, it would do nothing more than to upset the Pyongyang regime and act as an incentive for them to quicken their development of nuclear weapons.[11] China’s argument is that deployment of THAAD could spur an arms race in the region, and with North Korea acting like a moody teenager, high tension may lead to armed conflict, leading to a potential war.


Whatever the actual reason is, the fact that South Korea is in a difficult situation does not change; it has a crazy, moody teen brother wanting to murder it, an unhappy father that dislikes you carrying around a shield to protect yourself, and an anxious mother who’s on your side, but is away on a foreign continent. The choice must now be made- as a traditional middle power, South Korea now needs to choose in whom it harbors its security.

*Photo Credit:

Photograph by Jared Erondu, uploaded on 9 June 2015, provided by Unsplash Available at:

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