On June 5, South Korean President Moon Jai-in ordered an environmental impact assessment in the area where four additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launchers were to be deployed. THAAD is a mobile system capable of hitting ballistic missiles inside or outside the atmosphere in their final, or terminal, phase.
The unexpected move has caused alarm for policy makers in Washington, DC, who are worried about Beijing’s influence on the newly elected president.
THAAD is a defensive system designed to track and shoot down missiles designated for targets inside South Korea and throughout the region. Its primary purpose is to defend US military personnel (approximately 28,000) and South Korean critical infrastructure from North Korean missile launches. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula continue to ebb and flow as Washington has requested assistance from Beijing to reign in the reclusive Kim regime.
Russia and China continue to oppose the deployment. China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, recently stated, “We have said many times before that the United States deployment of THAAD not only is not beneficial for the resolution of the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, it is also not good for regional stability.”
The unexpected delay in fully deploying the THAAD system could result in several scenarios going forward.
First, the delay could give the United States a window of opportunity to completely reassess its strategic posturing on the peninsula. Options to execute a phased withdrawal from the region could unfold, something many experts believe would be a mistake.
Secondly, the delay could embolden the North Korean regime to continue its furious pace of missile testing. North Korea has already fired 16 missiles in 10 tests in 2017. As Beijing and Washington continue to squabble over how to exert pressure on the DPRK, it is no wonder this lack of a coherent strategy will allow continued testing to occur unabated.
Third, its unclear if Moon is signaling that that he is open to a fresh approach toward Chinese and South Korean relations. China’s influence in the region is clearly growing as Washington continues to espouse an incoherent strategy in the region while maintaining an “American first” approach toward its decision-making process. It’s no wonder South Korea is weighing its options carefully with Beijing. Closer ties between the two states would benefit both nations in the long run, particularly on economic and regional security issues.
The United States should consider South Korea’s decision to delay THAAD as an opportunity to withdraw from the peninsula. The cold war is long over, and Washington’s ability to contain the DPRK has failed. Allowing China to take a greater leadership role may not be such a bad thing.