Robert Ross behind the THAAD controversy: analysis of a veteran China watcher

Photograph of Dr. Ross

Robert S. Ross is Professor of Political Science at Boston College and Associate, John King Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, Harvard University. 1989 Professor Ross was a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. In 1994-1995 he was Fulbright Professor at the Chinese Foreign Affairs College, in 2003 he was a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Institute of International Strategic Studies, Tsinghua University, Beijing, and in 2014 was Visiting Scholar, School of International Relations, Peking University. In addition, in 2009 he was Visiting Scholar, Institute for Strategy, Royal Danish Defence College. 

Professor Ross's research focuses on Chinese security policy, Chinese use of force, and East Asian security. His recent publications include China in the Era of Xi Jinping: Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges, Chinese Security Policy: Structure, Power, and Politics (Routledge, 2009), China’s Ascent: Power, Security, and the Future of International Politics (Cornell University Press, 2008), and New Directions in the Study of Chinese Foreign Policy (Stanford University Press, 2006). His other major works Great Wall and Empty Fortress: China’s Search for Security (W.W. Norton, 1997) and Negotiating Cooperation: U.S.-China Relations, 1969-1989 (Stanford University Press, 1995). Professor Ross is the author of numerous articles in World Politics, The China Quarterly, International Security, Security Studies, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and Asian Survey. His works translated in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and various European countries.

Professor Ross has been the recipient of research fellowships from the University of Washington and Columbia University. He has received research grants from the Social Science Research Council, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Ford Foundation, the Smith-Richardson Foundation, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), The Asia Foundation, and The United States Institute of Peace. 

Professor Ross has testified before various Senate and House committees, the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee and he is an consultant to U.S. government agencies. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Committee for U.S.-China Relation and he is a member of the executive committee of the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. He is a founding member and former board member of the United States Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. On April 6, 2017, he spoke to Chuyi Sheng CMC '17.

Photograph and bio courtesy of Dr. Ross.

Do you believe the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea was justified by the security conditions on the Korean peninsula?

First of all, THAAD does not work for the Korean Peninsula. It cannot defend South Korea. The Pentagon knows this. THAAD intercepts missiles at high altitude and North Korea’s missiles will not travel at high altitude long enough to be intercepted. The best that THAAD can do is to defend the southern portion of South Korea, but 70 percent of the population lives in the northern portion of South Korea. Second, America does not deploy THAAD in South Korea to defend the South Korea. We are deploying THAAD with a radar system that can cover much of China. There is an alternative radar system that is sufficient to cover North Korea, but not China. The Pentagon could have used a system that did not stir up such Chinese hostility, but it deliberately chose the current AN/TPY-2 X-band radar. The U.S. logic is that the radars for the U.S. national missile defense systems are all linked. The radar system in South Korea will be connected to radar systems in Japan, the Pacific and Alaska. A primary purpose of THAAD in South Korea is to contribute to a radar network to support missile defense for America, not for South Korea. 

China strongly opposes THAAD and claims that the system threatens its nuclear deterrent capacity. Are Chinese concerns valid?

China is not especially concerned with an American missile system that aims to undermine its second-strike capability, because it is relatively easy for China to penetrate an American system with less expensive long-range missiles. If it were an arms race based on money, China would win. There are also various other potential Chinese strategies, such as decoys, to undermine the U.S. national missile defense system. Moreover, the U.S. national missile defense system for protection of the United States is even less reliable than THAAD. The system has not been fully tested and the Government Accountability Office has been critical of past U.S. defense department claims of success. 

If THAAD system does not alleviate the problem in South Korea, why did Seoul accept the offer in the first place? 

First, in recent years, although South Korea is a U.S. ally and cooperates with the United States in regional affairs, it has been moving closer to China. Obama administration secretary of defense Ashton Carter and other administration officials wanted to stop South Korea’s gradual political re-alignment. THAAD is a political instrument to compel South Korea to recommit to the U.S.-South Korea alliance. THAAD is, in nature, a litmus test. The Obama administration put much pressure on South Korea and suggested that if Seoul had rejected the system, the alliance would be in question. South Korea had opposed the system for 10 years, but it finally succumbed to overwhelming U.S. pressure. When the most powerful country in the world demands something, it is extremely difficult for a small country to say no. Second, the South Korean people understandably view North Korea as a military threat, but they do not know that THAAD does not work. The strong demand from the public for deployment of THAAD placed significant pressure on the Blue House. Third, Park Geun-hye was a weak and unpopular president. Even though the South Korean military was not interested in THAAD, the South Korean government yielded to the deployment plan because of the combination of U.S. pressure, public demand and a weakened president. 

Given the fact that THAAD is a political tool, what does the U.S. want to achieve with the deployment?

U.S. interest in deploying THAAD in South Korea should be explained, in part, by America’s concern over about the rise of the Chinese military capabilities. China’s rising military strength challenges the U.S. alliance system in East Asia. THAAD is a part of the U.S. pivot to East Asia to address the challenge posed by China's rise. This is also why the U.S. has conducted high profile freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The U.S. wants to reassure its allies that it will stand up against the rise of China. In this respect, the deployment of THAAD embodies the message that the U.S. is still powerful and that it will resist China. It is thus a diplomatic tool that supports the U.S. hardline posture toward the Chinese military. The United States has basically drawn a line in the sand for China: if you don’t like what we are doing, then put greater pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program. It is also a political statement to regional allies that the U.S. will maintain its resolve to resist North Korea’s nuclear and missiles tests. 

Can you briefly explain the mechanism of THAAD and AN/TPY-2 Radar that has sparked controversy with China?

First, THAAD is an effort to prevent the rise of influence of China in South Korea. The U.S. uses the missile defense system to contain China and tie South Korea closer to the U.S. alliance system. Second, because the THAAD radar system is aimed at China, Chinese leaders will view U.S. deployment of THAAD in South Korea as a hostile act. Although the U.S. claims that the radar is not targeting China, because deception is the norm in international diplomacy, China will discount U.S. assurances. As long as THAAD has the capacity to monitor Chinese military actions, the Chinese government will strongly oppose the system. 

Korea’s opposition party’s presidential candidate vows to reconsider details of THAAD if he is elected. Will the South Korean presidential election held in May change the future of THAAD? Will China be able to persuade the new president to refuse or modify the system?

The South Korean opposition party has softened its resistance to THAAD because the installation process had already started. The United States sped up the deployment and it plans to finish the project before the South Korean election. Once the Lotte Group had handed over the property to provide land for THAAD, the opposition party observed that it may be too late and too difficult to stop deployment of THAAD. Once THAAD is deployed, South Korean rejection of THAAD will be a more hostile act against the U.S. and the U.S.-South Korea alliance. No matter which candidate wins the election, he or she will not risk U.S.-South Korean alliance instability by demanding that the U.S. withdraw the missile defense system. 

When Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing, he denounced THAAD and compared the system with the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system deployed in some NATO countries. Do you see similarity between the two programs?

The U.S. has claimed that the purpose of its missile defense system in Poland is to defend against Iranian missiles. From my understanding, you do not build a defense system in Poland to intercept missile strikes from a Persian Gulf country. The Aegis system, similar to THAAD, is understood by Moscow as a hostile act. Even though the two systems are not effective, the U.S. should have foreseen the negative reactions from both China and Russia. 

After the announcement of the THAAD deployment, China first used coercive economic policies to deter South Korea and American allies in Asia from adopting the system. Is China producing the results it has desired? Is it the price China has paid too high?

I would say no. However, from the perspective of South Korea, the economic sanctions have been costly. Lotte Group’s sales in China have been significantly affected by Chinese sanctions, as has the income of the South Korean entertainment industry. The Financial Times has reported that Chinese retaliation against South Korean auto sales has significantly affected the South Korean economy.  As a small country close to China, South Korea clearly does not want to anger its powerful neighbor. Unfortunately, Seoul is now faces a difficult situation. Although the Chinese could not stop deployment of the THAAD system, it has not only imposed economic sanctions on South Korea, but it has also become less cooperative with the United States and China regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. China’s message is clear: If the United States and South Korea want to contain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, then the United States must open direct negotiations with Kim Jong-un, rather than depend on China’s help.  This has remained China’s position since the U.S.-China summit at Mar-a-Lago.

Deployment of THAAD may be the last major success for the U.S. -South Korea alliance. As China continues to rise, the pressure for South Korea to accommodate China’s security interests will grow. Given the high cost that South Korea has incurred, it will be increasingly difficult for the South Korean government to continue to challenge Chinese security interests. The Chinese government spared no effort to warn South Korea that it would retaliate and there is no doubt in Seoul that that China will impose greater costs against similar actions in the future. South Korea will become more cautious and it will refrain from further challenging China when it collaborates with the U.S.. After all, China is a rising power and South Korea relies on Chinese markets for economic prosperity and on Beijing’s support to deter an increasingly aggressive North Korea. 

China has paid a negligible price for its resistance to THAAD. First, in international politics, there is the old saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch and the truism “no pain no gain.” It is necessary to pay a price if a country wants to accomplish a goal. Certainly the U.S. has expended a great amount of resources to fight wars in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Chinese leaders thus expected that China would pay a price for its opposition the deployment of THAAD. Second, the cost to South Korea has been much higher than the cost to China because South Korea depends heavily on the Chinese economy. This yields Beijing significant leverage over South Korea. Third, China has been strategic in imposing economic sanctions.  It employs a strategy that has been proven effective on countries such as the Philippines. It imposes sanctions on industries and products that do not contribute significantly to the Chinese GDP. Chinese sanctions on Philippine bananas and fishing boats do not impact China’s GDP. Similarly, if you ban pop stars and music groups from South Korea from performing in China, China will not incur an economic cost. If you retaliate against Lotte Department stores or Hyundai cars, not many Chinese economic interests are affected. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has not imposed sanctions against South Korean companies that invest heavily in Chinese high-technology and consumer export industries. 

How will THAAD challenge the regional stability? Will it provoke a new arms race among the U.S., North Korea and China? How do you see this controversy end?

It is hard to imagine an arms race. China clearly has a secure second-strike capability and it is not interested in building a large stockpile of nuclear warheads. China’s ministry of foreign affairs has used the threat of an arms race as political rhetoric. China may produce more missiles in response to THAAD, but there will not be an arms race. China has approximately 30 long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles and it will likely deploy additional missiles after the deployment of the THAAD system in South Korea. However, the overall number of China’s ICBMs is small when compared with the current inventories of the United States and the Soviet Union. 

Because the deployment of THAAD is not reversible, to improve relations with China the new South Korean administration will distance itself from the Park government’s decision to deploy THAAD; it will blame the prior administration for cooperating with the U.S. “anti-China” policy. The new government will try to move forward and it will try to reassure Chinese leaders that it will pay greater attention to Chinese security concerns. 

Given the fact that President Xi spent much political power courting the South Korean government in recent years, what is Beijing’s reaction toward the deployment? 

The deployment of THAAD was indeed embarrassing for Chinese President Xi Jinping. To Beijing, the current situation is a reversal of the China-South Korea honeymoon, which began in 2013 under Xi’s leadership. President Xi may thus be worried about his personal reputation in the Party, but this concern is a secondary factor in Chinese retaliatory policy.  Chinese coercive economic sanctions are, in nature, political retribution because South Korea ignored Chinese warnings to not cooperate with U.S. deployment of THAAD. 

Some analysts claim that China’s failure to restrain North Korea led to the deployment of THAAD. Is the criticism reasonable? 

The South Korean people have lived with North Korea’s nuclear weapons since the 1990s. The nuclear threat from North Korea is not a new threat, but a reality. North Korea has had the ability to destroy South Korea for a long time and there is no news or surprise about this. What is new is that Pyongyang is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles that may endanger the security of the United States. The deployment of THAAD radar systems, if missile defense can be effective, serves U.S. interests, not South Korea’s interests. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was a hawk regarding the rise of China. He demanded that Seoul support the U.S. alliance resistance against North Korea and China.

China’s position is clear. Because South Korea abandoned its good bilateral relationship with China and contributed to American containment of China, Beijing has mobilized political and economic resources to retaliate. Beijing did not want to become a “paper tiger” that simply issued empty threats, and thus it retaliated. South Korea was fully aware of the consequences of THAAD deployment, but it agreed to the plan under U.S. pressure. In my opinion, Chinese retaliation will continue at least until the South Korean election. When a politician from the opposition party comes to power and aims to restore the relationship with China, the economic sanctions will gradually end. 

Author: 
Wendy Chuyi Sheng