Tensions have flared between China and South Korea after the recent rocket launch by their neighbor, North Korea.
This week, US national intelligence chief James Clapper identified North Korea and its nuclear program as a threat to US national security. Yet, if the United States is concerned about North Korea, South Korea is downright fearful.
South Korea reacted to its northern neighbor’s actions by entering into negotiations with the United States over the potential installation of an anti-ballistic missile defense system. The Pentagon announced that it hopes to see such a defense system, formally known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD), installed in South Korea “as quickly as possible.”
This has caused tensions to rise between China and South Korea. Dr. Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, told The Christian Science Monitor that “China believes that if THAAD is deployed, it is likely to become integrated into US and Japanese defense systems,” threatening China’s sovereignty.
The American-exported defense system would allow South Korea to counter nuclear threats from North Korea.
The worldwide response to North Korea’s satellite launch has been largely negative. North Korea has been banned from launching missiles by the United Nations. No matter what the purpose of this week’s launch may have been, whether a peaceful satellite launch as the DPRK claims or an intercontinental ballistic missile test as others fear, the United States has called for more stringent sanctions.
The New York Times reported that China’s response to South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s pursuit of the THAAD system was negative. China expressed concerns for its own security with the missile system as a neighbor, stating that, “every country must not undermine the security interest of other countries while pursuing its own security interests.”
Relations between China and South Korea had been improving since 2014. Dr. Allison said in an interview that South Korea is highly important to China as a trading partner.
According to Allison, “part of its [China’s] basic economic strategy has been thickening the relationship between South Korea and China.” As of 2012, a Council on Foreign Relations report stated that China was South Korea’s largest trade partner. South Korea, on the other hand, was China’s third largest partner.
“Xi Jinping [China’s President] made a point to visit South Korea before he visited North Korea,” said Allison, emphasizing the symbolic importance of the visit.
Yet China’s non-confrontational response to North Korean nuclear development has hampered relations between the two countries in recent months.
Although China expressed “regret” that North Korea had pressed onward with its nuclear program, setting off a fourth weapon last month, it has not participated in calls for more stringent sanctions, and has maintained diplomatic relations.
China’s unwillingness to take stronger steps to condemn North Korean nuclear development has led to a deterioration in its relationship with South Korea, and condemnation from countries like the United States.
If China is so interested in maintaining its relationship with South Korea, why has the Chinese government been so conciliatory towards North Korea in light of its nuclear program?
According to Scott Snyder, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ program on US-Korea policy, China views North Korea as a security buffer.
“China,” says Snyder, “will accept the US-Korean alliance as long as it focuses on North Korea.” Without North Korea to act as a buffer, both geographically and for US-South Korean aggression, Chinese fears would increase.
The United States currently has nearly 30,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. China sees the addition of the THAAD system as a move that would entrench American military might and influence even more securely in Asia.
Both Allison and Snyder also say that the idea of North Korea as anything but friendly to China is a new idea. The Chinese relationship with North Korea, “goes back to when the DPRK [North Korea] and PRC [China] were born as ideological twins in the late 1940s,” says Snyder.
Although Allison characterizes China’s current relationship with North Korea as “a strange relationship with a spoiled, dramatic brat,” today China is concerned about the danger of a North Korean regime collapse.
According to North Korea expert and Belfer Center fellow Jieun Baek, China is fearful that because the country’s nuclear program is its only leverage point, the DPRK could collapse if pushed too hard or sanctioned too stringently.
As frustrating as North Korea can be to deal with, one of China’s great fears is that if the DPRK collapses, North and South Korea will unify into one US-backed state that could throw off the power balance in Asia.
A North Korean collapse would also trigger an unprecedented refugee crisis and cast doubts on the location of North Korea’s rumored stock of nuclear weapons.
Mr. Baek told the Monitor in a phone interview that such a collapse could be precipitated by a last-ditch nuclear weapons sale. For China (and quite possibly the United States), the prospect of a nuclear ISIS is more daunting than a nuclear North Korea.
"China thinks that North Korea's threat to South Korea is a fake reason for THAAD," says Baek, "and that the real reason is a US attempt to deter China's military expansion."
North Korea, South Korea, and China are therefore engaged in a security balancing act at the moment.
Nevertheless, says Baek, "I highly doubt that North Korea will provoke South Korea."