Asia Divisions Deepen after South Korean Missile Defense Deployment

On Friday, Seoul’s Defense Ministry and the US Defense Department announced their joint decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense system in South Korea. The first battery will be placed to protect American forces on the peninsula against a North Korean missile attack.

China reacted within hours, lodging protests with both South Korea and the US. Then on Monday the Chinese foreign ministry continued its tantrum, threatening, in the words of spokesman Lu Kang, to impose “relevant measures” against South Korea.

South Korea’s deployment of THAAD, as the Lockheed Martin-built system is known, is a setback for Chinese attempts to move Seoul away from Washington and marks an end of President Park Geun-hye’s moves to entice China to abandon North Korea.

These two failed initiatives will have long-lasting consequences. The most important of them looks like a division of North Asia into two camps, one centered on China and the other on the US. In short, Asia is beginning to break down into groupings last seen during the Cold War.

China, in many ways, is a driver of this process. Beijing, Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, “miscalculated” in its attempts to prevent South Korea from agreeing to deploy THAAD. The Chinese, returning to the thinking of the tributary era, thought they had power over the South Koreans and attempted to intimidate them, badly overreaching.

But Beijing does not appear to be pulling back after its setback. Instead, the Chinese look like they are attempting to punish the South by increasing cooperation with its mortal enemy, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As Cai Jian of Shanghai’s Fudan University predicts, “Beijing’s relationship with Pyongyang will get better.”

And as Lee Jung-nam of Korea University notes, China might ease sanctions on the North. Moreover, Lee thinks South Korea will have a harder time getting Beijing’s cooperation.

The changes are so momentous that Lee believes there could be a “new Cold War” with China, Russia, and North Korea on one side and the US, South Korea, and Japan on the other.

At one time, South Korea thought it might be able to avoid taking sides and play the crucial swing role in North Asia. President Roh Moo-hyun, playing to his young constituency, once offered to “mediate” between Washington and Pyongyang as if his nation were a neutral bystander.  

In 2005, he wanted South Korea to develop a “balancing role,” switching sides on an issue-by-issue basis between the “northern alliance” of Beijing, Moscow, and Pyongyang and the “southern alliance” of Washington and Tokyo. “The power equation in Northeast Asia will change, depending on the choices we make,” he said, with more than a touch of the confidence evident in Seoul at the time.

Beijing, if it still retained its once-deft touch, would encourage Seoul, even after it agreed to the THAAD deployment, to aspire to the balancer role. But Chinese foreign policy has become increasingly hard-headed in this decade, and China seems destined to push South Korea more firmly into its alliance with Washington.

America’s best diplomatic weapon in Asia is China, because by being so aggressive Beijing makes it easy for Washington to maintain strong ties there. Chinese policymakers must recognize this reality, yet they have maintained their course and may well double down. That, among other things, should be a cause for alarm in capitals in the region and elsewhere.

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