HONG KONG – South Korean President Park Geun-hye has discovered first hand the feeling of getting the cold shoulder from China.
Under the fluent Mandarin speaker’s watch, South Korea had seen improved ties with China, drawn together in part by concern about Japan’s wartime past and the military ambitions of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Park was the only leader of a U.S. ally to attend a military parade in China last year for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
Now, relations that were hailed by both countries as the best in history have soured, and Park may get a frosty reception in China next month for the Group of 20 summit. The reason: Her agreement to deploy a U.S. missile shield on Korean soil.
While South Korea says the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system made by Lockheed Martin Corp. would be aimed at prickly neighbor North Korea, which has been busy of late test-firing missiles, China has reacted angrily, saying the shield could be applied to it. Russia has also opposed it being stationed in Asia.
The tensions, which could crimp Chinese tourism to South Korea and even the appetite for that country’s K-pop music, could also go some way to resetting the geopolitical landscape in North Asia. South Korea may move back toward the U.S., and that in turn could bring South Korea and Japan closer. China, meantime, finds itself potentially in North Korea’s corner.
“The THAAD deployment is a symbol of the new Cold War,” said Shi Yongming, an associate research fellow who specializes in Korean studies at the Foreign Ministry-run China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. “It marks a watershed moment in the relations between China and South Korea. The strategic trust is now broken. The power dynamic in Northeast Asia has fundamentally shifted, towards a profound deterioration.”
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has described the THAAD plan as an “out-and-out strategic” move, underscoring Beijing’s perception the deployment is a U.S. plan to contain China in the region. South Korea’s willingness to share information with Japan that is collected from THAAD has compounded that view.
The foreign ministry also said THAAD’s powerful radars threaten its national security, warning about taking “necessary measures to safeguard” its interests. U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing last month the system is “purely defensive.” The U.S. had offered to share details of the system with Chinese officials, who never took up the offer, he said.
One consequence of the tensions over THAAD could be an arms race in North Asia, with both China and Russia moving to develop more sophisticated weaponry. The deployment may also play into the hands of North Korea, allowing leader Kim Jong Un to shore up ties with China, its only major ally.
South Korea is already facing an economic backlash even though THAAD may not be operational on its soil until the end of next year. The Korea International Trade Association has identified 26 measures in place by China that hurt its members. Sales to China declined about 9 percent in July. It accounts for about a quarter of South Korea’s exports and is its biggest trading partner.
For both Xi and Park, the cooling of ties could cost them political capital. Xi picked Seoul over Pyongyang for his first high-profile state visit to the peninsula. Park, meanwhile, had leaned on China to help her reign in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
“It’s China’s inability to restrain North Korea and unwillingness to give South Korea meaningful security guarantees that has shown the limits of what South Korea can expect from China,” said Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University.
Xi and Kim — who have yet to meet — exchanged congratulatory messages in May and July on key party occasions. North Korean exports to China of natural resources not subject to United Nations sanctions rose more than 50 percent in the first half of the year, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.
Kim Dong-yup, an analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in South Korea, said the bickering over THAAD “is happiness to North Korea.”
THAAD has also caused political tension within South Korea. Six first-term lawmakers from the main opposition party are in Beijing on a three-day trip, according to Yonhap, and are expected to discuss the missile defense system Tuesday with Chinese scholars. Park’s ruling Saenuri Party said the visit could make the situation worse and called it a “shame to our politics.”
Shi Yuanhua, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said China aimed at least to pressure South Korea to postpone the THAAD deployment given that country faces a presidential election in December 2017.
Still, China will need to take care to avoid pulling away too far from Seoul.
“Actions have consequences, and it has pushed the South Korea towards the U.S. and Japan, however much China tries to paint it as an American plot,” said Robert Manning, senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Washington, DC-based Atlantic Council. “It is one piece of a very counterproductive Xi Jinping foreign policy.”