World Asia Pacific First Look

Why China is strongly objecting to South Korea’s THAAD developments

After South Korea's Lotte Group approved a land swap for the THAAD system this week, Chinese media threatened the South with boycotts and the cutting of diplomatic ties. 

South Korean policemen and soldiers stand guard at a golf course owned by Lotte, where the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system will be deployed, in Seongju, South Korea, on March 1, 2017.
Kim Joon-beom/Yonhap/Reuters | Caption

As South Korea moved ahead this week with plans to deploy a US missile defense system southeast of Seoul, China responded by ramping up its opposition to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.

After the board of an affiliate of South Korea’s Lotte Group conglomerate approved a land swap for the system on Monday, state-run Chinese media reacted with threats of boycotts and an end to diplomatic relations with the South.

Lotte should be shown the door in China, state-run Chinese tabloid the Global Times wrote in an editorial on Tuesday.

“We also propose that Chinese society should coordinate voluntarily in expanding restrictions on South Korean cultural goods and entertainment exports to China, and block them when necessary,” it said in its English-language edition.

While the THAAD system is meant to stop a North Korean missile attack on the South, China has opposed the system ever since Seoul and the Obama administration agreed last year to deploy it on the peninsula. China has said the powerful radar capability of the system would allow the United States to snoop on northeast China, and possibly on Chinese military activity.

Now that South Korea is one step closer to deploying the system, China’s reaction could offer a preview of its future relationship with Seoul and the Trump administration if the system is, in fact, deployed.

The land swap the board of the unlisted Lotte Group approved on Monday trades part of a golf course with land from the government. The golf course, owned by Lotte, is in the Seongju region, southeast of Seoul, and is also the military’s preferred site for the THAAD system. In exchange for the land, the government agreed to give Lotte military property.

The THAAD system, which Seoul agreed to deploy in response to North Korean missile tests last year, is designed to shoot down short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, such as those North Korea claims to have, according to CNN.

But China, along with Russia, has repeatedly opposed the deployment of the system because of its strong radar capabilities.

Its reaction to Seoul’s latest move was no different, with state-run media blasting South Korea. The Chinese tabloid the Global Times also called for a boycott of South Korean cars and cellphones.

The official People’s Daily also said the cutting of diplomatic ties should be considered.

“If THAAD is really deployed in South Korea, then China-South Korea relations will face the possibility of getting ready to cut off diplomatic relations,” it said on the WeChat account of its overseas edition.

The official Xinhua news agency criticized Lotte, too.

"Chinese consumers can absolutely say no to this kind of company and their goods based on considerations of 'national security,'" it wrote.

The Lotte Group suggested in February that Chinese authorities had stopped construction of one of its projects because of its cooperation with the South Korean government. On Feb. 8, the conglomerate said Chinese authorities halted construction of a multi-billion dollar real estate project after a fire inspection, fueling concern in South Korea about damage to commercial ties with the world’s second-largest economy.

South Korean media also reported over the weekend that China has started to block videos of South Korean music and television dramas from its streaming services. Korean news outlet Yonhap reported Chinese streaming services have stopped updating video clips of South Korean entertainment wildly popular in China, according to Billboard.

According to Yonhap, one website wrote on social media that “everybody should be aware of the reason for this,” referencing China’s hardening attitude to Korean cultural imports.

While the Obama administration struck a deal with Seoul to deploy the system, the Trump administration has stood behind it. Early last month, Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, said the administration is committed to carrying through with the THAAD deal, prompting swift criticism from the Chinese.

The deployment “will jeopardize security and the strategic interests of regional countries, including China, and undermine the strategic balance in the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at the time.

Academics have debated whether China has remained friendly with North Korea because it needs a secure, private buffer between itself and its Asian neighbors aligned with the US, as Ralph Jennings, a Taipei-based journalist, wrote for Forbes.

“There is ... a tendency in Beijing to see the U.S. alliance structure in Asia as aimed at the encirclement and containment of China,” Joshua Pollack, the editor of The Nonproliferation Review in the United States, told Mr. Jennings. “From this point of view, any steps that might help to consolidate the U.S.-South Korean alliance over the long term, or help to counteract China's own ability to dissuade South Korea from acting against Chinese interests in the future, would be highly unwelcome.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.