On March 16, the Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs both landed in Seoul four hours apart. After meeting with his Korean counterpart Lee Kyung-soo, Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao, who arrived first, told reporters that he delivered China's concerns and worries over the deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, which will help, he hoped, the U.S. and South Korea make a reasonable decision.
During the approximately two hour meeting, Liu reportedly spent only five minutes talking about the THAAD issue, an anti-ballistic missile system developed by the U.S. military, by blurting it out at the end of the talks. It means that he tried just to put the missile deployment issue officially on the table, intending to avoid a deep debate right away with a South Korean government that has been sticking to strategic ambiguity with its stance of “3 Nos” -- No Requests, No Consultations, and No Decisions.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel told reporters on March 17, a day after he arrived in the country, that Washington wondered why a third party is opposed so strongly to a security system that has not been discussed yet and is just a theory. He said that it is just South Korea that should make a decision on what measures to take under the Korea-U.S. alliance.
Prior to Russel’s remarks that day, Seoul's Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said that neighbors can have their own positions on any security issue, like the possible deployment of the THAAD system by U.S. Forces Korea under the Korea-U.S. alliance system, but they should not try to influence South Korea’s security policy. He added that South Korea will make a decision based upon its own judgment after putting security interests before anything else, if the U.S. government asks for a consultation.
Meanwhile, China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei restated at a regular press briefing on the same day that China's position on the anti-missile issue is consistent and clear. He added that countries must neither pursue their own security interests at the expense of others', nor undermine regional peace and stability.
South Korea is now becoming a theater where the expansion of Chinese power crashes outright with the riposte of the U.S. in Northeast Asia. Amid the confrontation of the U.S.-led TPP economic blockade with the China-led CERP, the G2 are battling in South Korea over the latter’s joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a founding member, which counters the Asian Development Bank (ADB) led by the U.S. and Japan. In addition to the economic battle, the military issue of THADD deployment is fueling the fire of power demonstrations by the two nations in South Korea, driving the nation into a corner where it should be concerned about how far the fire would spread.
The U.S. and China have been trying to win Korea to their sides in both economic and military sectors by increasing pressure on South Korea. And now, the issues of AIIB and THADD are forcing the nation to show a clear stance over the issues and to make a choice between their ally and their largest trade partner.
The Korean government has stuck to strategic ambiguity as far as THADD deployment is concerned, as the military issue is more volatile than the economic one. Under the circumstances, experts are arguing the pros and cons in relation with the country’s choice. Experts believe, however, that the feud between the two powers should not lead South Korea to a zero sum game. It is the way of the world that you win some, you lose some.
The U.S. and China have discussed economic issues via a consultation body established by themselves to solve economic conflicts between them and seek cooperation for mutual benefit. As such, cooperation is needed in nature along with competition in the economic field. Korea has already signed a free trade agreement with the U.S., and will sign an agreement with China soon. Therefore, the Korean government should actively join the economic blockades led by the two global powers without hesitating over the choices between the TPP or CERP, and ADB or AIBB. The U.K. and New Zealand, which have been friendly to the U.S. for a long time, have already expressed their willingness to join the AIIB. Washington may also not pick Seoul to join the TPP on account of joining the AIIB as a founding member.
However, the THAAD deployment is a very intricate, militarily and politically sensitive, issue. The North Korea nuclear and missile programs are inevitable threats to not only Korea and the U.S. but also to China. Also, it will eventually provide a reason for Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Accordingly, the nuclear and missile issues have been common interests for those involved. The six-party talks for addressing the issues fell, however, into a dilemma, due to North Korea’s obstinate policy to not abandon its nuclear weapon programs. When the U.S. asked China to put pressure on North Korea, President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping said that he would deal with North Korea using China's own way. However, there has been no visible improvement, which might lead the THAAD deployment issue to come to the surface in earnest. If China cannot do anything about North Korea’s nuclear weapon and missile issues, the choices that South Korea could make over the THAAD issue as the ally of the U.S. couldn’t help but be limited.
Accordingly, the Korean government should keep sticking to its strategic ambiguity for a considerable period of time, and induce the U.S. and China, which could ultimately solve North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, to a table for their direct negotiations to address the issues. This is also needed to avoid the extreme collision of the two powers in the region.
Korea hopes that both powers understand and respect the stance of South Korea. In particular, Korea should remember the remark of Kim Ha-joong, the Korean Ambassador to China during the former Kim Dae-jung administration, saying, “Chinese people think that the technique of expressing one’s opinions vaguely and unclearly is one of the virtues that Chinese leaders should have.” Korea hopefully wants China, which has now become part of the G2, to think that Korea also has such a virtue as a good neighbor.
The U.S. should also remember that they came close to a war with the Soviet Union when the latter tried to establish a missile base in Cuba during the Cold War era. Who will tolerate threats if they are right under one’s nose?
There are also not a few voices in South Korea opposed to the deployment because they doubt the effectiveness of the defense system. It is a responsibility of the U.S. to clearly demonstrate that a THAAD deployment in Korea would not be a threat to China and also be effective against the North’s missiles if Washington wants to make any headway with the defense system here.
In the growing conflicts between the two powers, the Park Geun-hye administration should also protect the core interests of the nation that has grown into being one of the global economic powers, rather than a country that met its misfortune in special interest clashes among the powers surrounding the Korean peninsula a century ago.