The timing was revealing, if perhaps coincidental. Less than 48 hours after North Korea launched four ballistic missiles into the sea off Japan’s northwest coast on Monday, the United States began the long-planned deployment of a missile defense system in South Korea.
Beijing denounced the North’s latest test launch by issuing its usual condemnations about reckless provocations. But Chinese officials saved their toughest words for the deployment of the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense System, or THAAD, in a sign of how incensed they are at the move and the threat they say it poses to the regional security balance.
Beijing is particularly eager to de-escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula that it sees gaining a worrisome momentum. Linked closely to those concerns is competition over the regional balance of power, amid a China deepening its foothold through military installations in the South China Sea and ongoing pushback from the US. Chinese officials are worried that the deployment of THAAD would allow the US to establish a broader network of anti-missile systems in East Asia to counter China’s growing military as much as North Korea.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Geng Shuang, vowed on Tuesday that “all consequences entailed from that will be borne by the US and South Korea,” and warned that the two countries should not “go further and further down the wrong road.”
New arms race?
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a more conciliatory approach during a news conference in Beijing on the sidelines of China's annual national legislative sessions. He said defusing the North Korea crisis required action from both sides. More specifically, he proposed that North Korea could suspend its nuclear and missile activities in exchange for a halt in joint military drills conducted by South Korea and the US.
“The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, and neither side is willing to give way,” Mr. Wang said. “The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision? Our priority now is to flash the red light and apply brakes.”
Wang said a mutual freeze in military activity could “bring the parties back to the negotiating table.” But the Trump administration has shown little interest in direct negotiations with Pyongyang since canceling unofficial talks between US and North Korean representatives in New York this month.
THAAD is designed to intercept short- and medium-range missiles, but Beijing says the system’s sophisticated radar could peer into China's territory and threaten its military operations.
Wang Dong, an associate professor of international studies at Peking University, says the THAAD deployment could lead to a new arms race in the region by pressuring China to ramp up its deterrence capabilities.
“We need to make adjustments to China’s nuclear deployment, including upgrading China’s nuclear arsenal in quality and quantity,” Professor Wang says. “If it adds to the regional security problem or leads to nuclear competition, the US and South Korea should be held responsible for that.”
Washington has tried to reassure Beijing about its strategic intentions since announcing the deployment last July. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner reiterated that it was solely in response to North Korea's provocative behavior.
"We have been very clear in our conversations with China that this is not meant to be a threat, and is not a threat to them or any other power in the region," Mr. Toner told reporters in Washington.
But Beijing has held onto its suspicions while trying to persuade Seoul to reconsider. Wang called the THAAD deployment a "wrong choice" and the biggest thorn in South Korea-China relations.
Chinese authorities have closed 23 retail stores owned by Lotte, a South Korean conglomerate that agreed to provide one of its golf courses as the site of THAAD. Visits to China by South Korean entertainers have been canceled and shipments of South Korean beauty products have been stopped at customs, retaliatory slaps that China has denied are connected to THAAD.
Yang Xiyu, a former senior Chinese official who once oversaw the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program in the 2000s, says it’s difficult to predict what steps Beijing will take now that the deployment is under way. But he says one thing is for sure: “When the US and South Korea decided to deploy THAAD, it ruined the strategic mutual trust between China and South Korea.”
The North Korean nuclear and missile threat will be the focus of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to China, Japan, and South Korea starting next week, the State Department said on Tuesday. It will be Mr. Tillerson’s first trip to the region since he took office a month ago as the top US diplomat. He is scheduled to arrive in Beijing on March 18.
Tillerson is expected to push Chinese officials to put more economic pressure on North Korea during his visit. Last month, Beijing suspended all coal imports from North Korea for the rest of the year. Although Beijing is Pyongyang’s only political ally and its economic lifeline, it rejects accusations from Washington that it could be doing more and instead insists that diplomatic negotiations are the best option.
Xie Yujuan contributed reporting from Beijing.