The sped-up deployment of America’s THAAD missile defense system in South Korea this week has triggered alarm over a new arms race in the Asia-Pacific region. Central to regional concerns is the following question: why is the US missile system capable of penetrating deep inside Chinese and Russian territory?
The installation of the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea this week has gone ahead despite earlier protests from China and Russia that it would upset the strategic balance in the region. China’s reaction has been particularly furious, with media outlets there calling for economic sanctions on major South Korean commercial ties between the two countries.
Deployment of the THAAD system near South Korea’s capital Seoul has also been brought forward by several months since it was first announced by Washington and its South Korean ally last year.
The apparent prompt for the latest move was the test-firing of four ballistic missiles by North Korea earlier this week in the Sea of Japan. That test reportedly spurred the Americans to deploy the THAAD in South Korea. Components arrived this week onboard giant C-17 military transport planes from a base in Texas.
Both Japan and South Korea have been unnerved by a spate of nuclear and ballistic weapons testing in recent years carried out by North Korea in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. Washington says it is obliged by long-held defense pacts to allay its allies’ fears by installing THAAD.
However, Beijing and Moscow are apprehensive that their territories are the real target for the American missile system and that they represent the ultimate strategic objectives behind Washington’s declared defense commitments. In other words, Washington is playing a charade of acting as a virtuous protector when in fact it is being an aggressor.
According to China’s Xinhua news outlet, South Korea earlier had claimed that the THAAD would be deployed with a detection range of some 600 kilometers, sufficient to cover its North Korean foe.
Now though it appears that the US Pentagon is upgrading the radar working range of the system to reach 2,000 kms. With that much greater additional scope, the American missile system on the Korean Peninsula will be able to penetrate deep into Chinese and Russian territory. Beijing and Vladivostok are less that 1,000 kms from South Korea’s capital Seoul.
The extended missile systems being deployed by Washington on the Korean Peninsula have a disturbing resonance with similar American deployments in the eastern European countries of Romania and Poland. In the latter case, the Aegis missile system is officially said by Washington to be in defense of Europe from Iranian ballistic weapons. Moscow has dismissed those US claims as a flagrant ruse to conceal the real purpose of targeting Russian defenses.
Pentagon public relations of declaring THAAD and Aegis as being «defensive anti-missile systems» does not bear scrutiny either. For such missile «shields» act, in effect, to destabilize the existing strategic balance of forces, by giving the US side a «first-strike» capability, or at least the temptation of such, because in theory the system nullifies counter-strikes. That is, these systems are far from «defensive». As part of a concerted military arsenal, they are offensive. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned that the unilateral American deployment of anti-missile systems in eastern Europe is undermining regional security.
Likewise, Washington’s headlong rush to deploy THAAD in South Korea can be viewed as a dangerous military escalation in a region historically fraught with tensions. Washington’s claims that it is merely protecting its allies in Seoul and Tokyo from North Korean «aggression» are hardly convincing when the new missile system has the capability to target China and Russia as well. From China and Russia’s standpoint, the latest American move in Korea is just part of an ongoing process of offensive US military encirclement against them.
Last week, Washington provoked Beijing’s ire when it made the surprise announcement that it was dispatching an aircraft carrier strike group to the South China Sea. The USS Carl Vinson carries 60 warplanes and will be accompanied by the guided missile destroyer, USS Wayne E Meyer. That deployment is but the latest in a series of American military forces ramped up near Chinese territory under the former Obama administration and with renewed impetus by President Trump.
Washington justifies its military presence in Asia-Pacific as being in the interest of protecting international «freedom of navigation» in maritime territory disputed by China and American regional allies. But again, just like Washington’s claims of «protecting» its allies against North Korea, the use of euphemism seems intended to conceal a hidden agenda of projecting US hegemonic interests.
The grim dynamic over the latest Korean tensions has the torque of a death spiral. North Korea said its testing of four ballistic missiles was a drill for hitting US bases in Japan. Then the US responds by installing its THAAD system in South Korea. But, as noted, the system destabilizes Chinese and Russian defenses, which will inevitably be bolstered by deploying missiles that can overcome the THAAD shield. And all the while, tensions between North Korea and South Korea and Japan keep spiraling.
North Korea’s claim of running a ballistic missile drill to hit US bases in Japan may sound provocative – but only if heard in narrow isolation.
The communist government of Kim Jung-un had warned that the latest ballistic test firing would go ahead in response to the current US war maneuvers being conducted with its South Korean ally. The Foal-Eagle US war exercises are carried out every year and last for two months, involving up to 300,000 troops, aircraft carriers and aerial bombers. The annual «war games» have been going on for decades since the end of the Korean War in 1953, which North Korea has repeatedly denounced as a drill for the eventual invasion of its territory. Shouldn’t North Korea’s grievances of having to endure nuclear-armed American aggression year after year be considered? Arbitrated upon?
North Korea is also subjected to a punishing array of economic sanctions imposed over the past two decades by Washington. Is it any wonder given this wider geopolitical context that the secretive Kim Jung-un regime in Pyongyang feels under siege from an implacably hostile American power?
In this perspective, Washington’s move to install its THAAD system is not «defensive». It is a further reckless escalation in a tinderbox region – an escalation that is dragging in China and Russia.
It should be obvious that a radically different approach to the region is urgently needed to break out of the recurring death spiral. If the US were to withdraw its military forces from the Korean Peninsula and if Washington revoked its policy of isolating and demonizing North Korea, then a space for regional dialogue and detente would be created. And de-escalation of military forces could begin.
There is only one party that has a vested strategic interest in fanning conflict in the region – and that is the United States, from billions of dollars of arms sales and giving itself a pretext for hegemonic meddling. The political class in Tokyo and Seoul no doubt also benefit from the existing crisis-prone American «partnership». But public protests across Japan and South Korea – against the THAAD in particular – show that popular demand is for Washington to stop interfering in regional affairs. What ever happened to Trump’s «America First» promises?
Unfortunately, antagonistic US policy in Asia-Pacific seems set to continue under Trump. Even though, objectively speaking, it is far from inevitable. Indeed, there is a viable alternative to the conflict-ridden path, one that could restore peace to the region.
But as can be seen in other areas of relations between the US, China and Russia, peace is not part of Washington’s calculus. Nor ever will be under its existing regime, dictated as it is by profits for the Pentagon, corporate and Wall Street oligarchy.