U.S. President Donald Trump's suggestion that South Korea will have to foot the $1.1 billion bill for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system being placed in its territory amounts to only a minor addition to the long list of controversies spurred by the deployment. The president's comments sparked a flurry of conversations over the weekend between South Korean and U.S. officials, who downplayed the statement. And in the short term, the results of South Korea's presidential election and the objections China has raised about the THAAD's effect on its own security will have a greater impact on the long-term prospects of the U.S. missile defense system intended to counter North Korea's thriving ballistic missile program.
With the blessing of South Korea's interim government, the U.S. military is hurrying to position and test the THAAD system before voters head to the polls May 9 to select ousted President Park Geun Hye's replacement. After all, the candidate for the progressive Democratic Party and the race's current front-runner, Moon Jae-in, has said he would revisit Seoul's agreement to host the THAAD if he wins the presidency. An operational test of the system, which is being set up on land supplied by Seoul, is expected later this week.
The THAAD issue has riveted the region's attention for well over a year. China, for one, has strongly opposed the system's deployment in South Korea, and once Washington and Seoul struck a bargain to do just that, Beijing began to unofficially target the South Korean economy. The dispute marked a dramatic downturn in China-South Korea relations, making it clear that the way the system has been wielded as a political tool could be more important than its military utility.
Though the THAAD certainly improves South Korea's ability to defend against a North Korean missile attack, it is by no means a game-changer on the peninsula. Furthermore, even if the THAAD were removed, it would not represent a significant setback in Seoul's defense capabilities; rather, it would mark a return to the status quo. This is not to say that the THAAD serves no purpose, but that the politics surrounding the deployment may be less about the missile defense system itself than the deeper complexities of Northeast Asian relations.
From China's perspective, South Korea turned on Beijing and ignored its interests by pursuing a dialogue on the THAAD with the United States. Coupled with Park's efforts to step up intelligence and security cooperation with Japan and the United States, South Korea appeared — at least to China — to be embracing a true trilateral alliance, feeding Beijing's fears that a Northeast Asian version of NATO would emerge intent on hemming in China.
The United States, on the other hand, sees the THAAD as a way to protect its forces in South Korea and prepare for the possibility of escalating tensions (or even outright conflict) with the North. But it also hoped that the idea of expanded missile defense in Northeast Asia, justified by Pyongyang's military programs, would persuade Beijing to finally take steps to rein in its belligerent neighbor. The development of a more potent missile shield, even if not necessarily the THAAD, might be enough to discourage China's own nuclear ambitions as well. And for Washington, disrupting the relationship between Beijing and Seoul would be an added bonus.
South Korea, for its part, tackled the THAAD question at a time when Park was faced with mounting political pressure at home. The country had long viewed the system as a layer of defense meant to protect U.S. forces more than its own security, and as another obstacle to its development of indigenous missile defenses. But as Park's political standing deteriorated and Chinese pressure rose, North Korea's accelerated missile testing provided the incentive needed to approve and speed up the THAAD's deployment. Now that decision is up for debate as the presidential campaign heats up. Even if Moon wins the race and permission for the THAAD deployment is rescinded, China's opposition to the move has already had an effect on public sentiment in South Korea, where the perception that Beijing overstepped its bounds in its opposition to the system has strengthened.
The flare-up of issues like the THAAD signals a deeper rebalancing of power and relationships in Northeast Asia. As China continues its rise and begins to perceive its economic ties abroad as sources of both strength and vulnerability, it will be compelled to extend its political and military reach to match its economic clout. At the same time, China's expansion and rebalancing in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008 has roused Japan, which is pushing back against Beijing's growing influence.
Between these forces sit North and South Korea, increasingly squeezed by their larger neighbors. As Pyongyang nears the end of its development of a long-range nuclear-capable missile, the window for stopping it is closing fast. Recognizing this, the United States has begun to make bolder moves in the region, ratcheting up the likelihood of military action in a year or two. That possibility, in turn, has altered China's approach to its relationship with North Korea. Pyongyang and Seoul, meanwhile, are watching their own options narrow because of the bigger powers around them, and each is seeking ways to reinforce its security and ability to shape its fate. But even if South Korea reverses the deployment of the system that set these changes in motion, the region is already moving toward a new equilibrium — one where instability will endure.