THAAD Mad Bad, Part I: US-China Rivalry in the South China Sea

T
he Terminal High Altitude Area Defense is a US Army anti-ballistic missile system designed to shoot down short, medium, and long-range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase, utilizing a hit-to-kill approach. THAAD missiles carry no warheads whatsoever, rather relying on the kinetic energy of impact to destroy any incoming missile.

A kinetic energy hit in theory will minimize the risk of exploding conventional warhead ballistic missiles. Nuclear tipped ballistic missiles won't explode upon a kinetic energy hit, thus adding an extra security element to the system for strategic destruction. There is the possibility that chemical or biological warheads may disintegrate or explode and thus pose a risk of contaminating the environment. If there is any doubt about the importance of the THAAD system to the overall American military-industrial complex one only need read the participant construction list involved in the development and deployment of the system: Lockheed Martin Space Systems is the prime contractor but Honeywell, Raytheon, Boeing, Aerojet, Rocketdyne, and BAE Systems are also involved. This is basically a Who’s Who list of primary players within the American defense industry.

A THAAD battery is comprised of nine launcher vehicles, each one containing eight missiles. It also comes with two mobile tactical operations centers and a ground-based radar system. Although explicit tactical numbers remain classified, most estimates give THAAD missiles a 200km range and an ultimate altitude capability of 150km. The very first THAAD unit was activated at Fort Bliss in Texas in May 2008. Thus, THAAD is by no means an old traditional system but represents the current cutting edge in missile defense. Its subsequent deployments since 2008 not only give testimony to this but also reveal part of the strategic problem for China that has driven a huge part of its objectives in the South China Sea.

In July 2009 a THAAD system was deployed on Hawaii as a safeguard against a potential North Korean incursion or threat to the islands. Interestingly, most of the main powers around the South China Sea never really considered this logic to be all that sound: given the range of THAAD missiles it meant a North Korean threat toward and American defense of Hawaii would have to take place relatively close to the archipelago. Most did not think such a threat emerging from North Korea was realistic. China certainly found the argumentation to be dubious. The next THAAD deployments only solidified that skepticism.

In April 2013 a new THAAD system was deployed to the island of Guam. Once again the strategic rationale given was to now protect Guam from a potential imminent attack from North Korea. In November 2015, the Japanese Defense Minister, General Nakatani, publicly said he would consider allowing the US to deploy a THAAD system on the Japanese mainland in order to, once more, answer a potential North Korean ballistic missile threat to Japan. Finally, in July 2016, the US and South Korea finally agreed on an alliance decision to deploy a THAAD system to the peninsula. The Department of Defense emphasized that this initiative was to ensure the security of South Korea and its people, while protecting the military alliance from North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile systems. Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon answered rather creatively when asked by media if China should be concerned about the progression of THAAD deployments closer and closer to the Chinese mainland: “They are not happy about it, [but] it’s not about China. It’s not a threat to China and we have made that plain to them and offered to explain it to them.”

The problem, of course, is that this quote first of all contradicts itself. Has the United States made it plain to China that the various THAAD deployments are not a threat to Chinese interests or has it offered to explain to China why this is so? The first version intimates already transpired attempts while the second version simply indicates a willingness to offer an explanation if China wants it. What seems to be the more accurate version, however, is just the public declaration that the United States feels THAAD deployments should not matter to China because they have been officially defined as defensive measures against North Korea. Formal declarations, however, seem to have little calming effect on Chinese strategic perspective.

Accurate or not, proven or not, there can hardly be any doubt that China views the gradual march westward of THAAD deployments as an initiative using North Korea as a cover to mask what is ultimately an anti-Chinese deterrence strategy. Indeed, some of the comments made in 2015 before the final agreement between South Korea and the United States shows just how seriously China takes the symbolic damage THAAD may represent:

Whenever a state places defensive weapons and systems at forward bases to protect forward forces from a specific adversary, this can easily give rise to political misunderstandings by neighboring states, resulting in unintended military escalation. For China, the deployment of THAAD to South Korea is just such an apparent provocation.

The deployment would imply that South Korea is part of the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) led by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. South Korea is also developing an indigenous missile defense system against North Korean threats, the Korea Air Missile Defense (KAMD) system, which is less likely to antagonize China than THAAD, since it will not be integrated into the wider BMD system designed to counter Iran in Europe and China in the Asia-Pacific.

Moreover, operating THAAD in South Korea represents an explicit threat to China’s asymmetric Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy, which aims to exclude forwarded U.S. forces from the so-called first island chain. So China could interpret THAAD deployment by South Korea as a major military posture by the U.S. intended to neutralize China’s A2/AD strategy[1].

This is what remains intensely intriguing over the THAAD/South China Sea issue. It comes across as a strategic-diplomatic chicken-and-egg controversy: the United States feels its positions with THAAD are forced to the forefront because of Chinese initiatives in the South China Sea; China, on the other hand, feels the THAAD deployments have made South China Sea initiatives de facto necessary and logical. Regardless of where anyone falls within the debate, it is clear that there are competing narratives facing off against one another within the South China Sea. Mainstream media covers it almost exclusively from a global rivalry perspective, pitting the United States against China. This narrative most certainly exists. But it is not the only one and not necessarily the most pertinent for determining how the region evolves in the coming years.

[1] Sukjoon Yoon, “Are China’s THAAD Fears Justified?” The Diplomat, 20 Feb 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/02/are-chinas-thaad-fears-justified/, accessed on 13 Sep 2016.

Dr. Matthew Crosston

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Vice Chairman of Modern Diplomacy and member of the Editorial Board at the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence.

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