U.S. deployment of missile system in South Korea riles China

BY    | Updated: Mar 9, 2017 at 3:42 PM

Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors arrive at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, in this handout picture provided by the United States Forces Korea (USFK) and released by Yonhap on March 7 via Reuters.

China voiced its objections to the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system to South Korea this week, saying it would “take necessary measures” to defend its national security.

“We’ve noticed the development. China will resolutely take necessary measures to defend its security interests, and all the consequences of that will be borne by the United States and the ROK,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday in Beijing, China Daily reported.

China said the system compromises its ability to counterstrike if attacked. According to technical experts, the Chinese have a case for being upset, but policy experts and U.S. officials say Chinese fears are misplaced.

U.S. officials say the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) is necessary for its own security and for defending allies in the region after the latest round of missile tests from North Korea. On Monday, the hermetical nation launched four missiles, three of which landed in Japanese waters.

U.S. and South Korean officials confirmed the equipment for THAAD arrived in South Korea on Tuesday.

“Continued provocative actions by North Korea, to include yesterday’s launch of multiple missiles, only confirm the prudence of our alliance decision last year to deploy THAAD to South Korea,” U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris said in the statement Tuesday.

THAAD is a mobile missile defense system that uses radar to assist in shooting down short- and medium-range missiles. Once the radar identifies a missile, the truck-mounted launcher fires an “interceptor,” which destroys the missile using kinetic energy. Defense technology company Lockheed Martin makes the THAAD system.

The Chinese concern is that the THAAD radar system in South Korea, if directed toward China, could track Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) earlier in their launch trajectory than current U.S. radar systems based in Alaska and Guam. That use of radar theoretically would give the U.S. more time to react to Chinese ICBMs and limit China’s ability to launch a counterstrike if attacked.

“The very serious problem created by this U.S. action is that it is seen by the Chinese leadership as inconsistent with promises the United States has been making,” Theodore Postol, who teaches science, technology and national security at MIT, wrote in an email to the PBS NewsHour.

“From a purely technical point of view it unambiguously looks like the United States is trying to gain an advantage over China with regard to defense against China’s ballistic missile nuclear deterrent,” wrote Postol, who was also a former scientific adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations.

But China’s scenario assumes a conflict happening in the distant future, if at all, while the movement of the missile system is for more immediate security concerns, American leaders and defense experts have said.

The THAAD placement “has to do with core national security issues of not just the United States but allies in the region” concerned over North Korea’s actions, said Lindsey Ford, former senior adviser to the assistant secretary on Asian and Pacific security affairs in the department of defense under the Obama administration.

“What we’re really talking about are concerns that would only be valid should China and the U.S. walk into nuclear war with each other,” she said.

American officials have repeatedly conveyed to the Chinese government that THAAD is purely for defensive purposes, but China has been unwilling to engage, former principal deputy secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs Kelly Magsamen told the NewsHour. “[China has] consistently resisted putting pressure on Pyongyang.

“We don’t go about ways looking to poke China in the eye,” she added.

“The salient issue is how maintain the peace,” said Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security Patrick Cronin.

“Even China has that interest, but they also have an interest in minimizing a regional missile defense system. They’re ignoring the need to strengthen the credible deterrents in response to provocations by North Korea,” he said.

On Thursday, U.N. investigators reported that North Korea attempted to sell nuclear weapon material last year.

In an effort to prevent U.S. deployment of THAAD, the Chinese government had proposed that North Korea stop its missile tests in exchange, which experts said isn’t likely to succeed.

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