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(News Focus) China's vociferous reactions over THAAD may hurt its neighborhood diplomacy, leadership ambitions: analysts

2016/08/05 14:07

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Aug. 5 (Yonhap) -- China's vociferous reactions over the planned dispatch of an advanced U.S. antimissile system to South Korea could compromise its ostensibly goodwilled neighborhood diplomacy, a key element of its strategy to rise as a major power, analysts here said Friday.

The analysts also warned that China's forceful objections to the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system here by end-2017 would persist as it apparently seeks to undercut the South Korea-U.S. alliance and evolving security ties among the two allies and Japan.

Since Seoul and Washington announced the plan to deploy THAAD to the southern town of Seongju last month, Beijing, along with its scholars, has heaped opprobrium on the allies, claiming THAAD would only escalate regional tensions and undermine its security interests.

In particular, China's state-run media have issued a series of strongly worded statements, one of which even warned that South Korea would become the "first military target" in case of an armed clash between the U.S. and China.

On Wednesday, the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, even mentioned President Park Geun-hye by name in an editorial pressuring the South Korean leader to "be circumspect" over THAAD "not to bring her country into the worst situation."

  

This photo, taken on Aug. 3, 2016, shows the third page of the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, carrying articles on the planned deployment of an advanced U.S. antimissile system to the peninsula. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on Aug. 3, 2016, shows the third page of the People's Daily, the official mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, carrying articles on the planned deployment of an advanced U.S. antimissile system to the peninsula. (Yonhap)

Analysts said that China's hitherto strong reactions could further undermine its "peripheral diplomacy" with its neighboring countries, some of which are mired in diplomatic spats with China over maritime sovereignty and other thorny issues.

"China's current stance (against South Korea) runs strictly counter to its neighborhood diplomacy," said Suh Jin-young, professor emeritus at Korea University. "If it turns many of its neighbors into adversaries, its peripheral diplomacy can flounder and then, it would face some kind of diplomatic isolation."

   In 2013, China put forward its neighborhood diplomacy principles of "qin cheng hui rong" -- meaning the principles of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness. These principles are in line with China's efforts to forge an external environment congenial to its rise as a major power.

China has long sought to ensure stability on its periphery as any instability along its borders would hamper its economic ascent and its efforts to tackle a slew of domestic issues, including economic revitalization, income gaps, social polarization, corruption and political reform.

Some observers said that China's reactions to THAAD appear to reflect its efforts to divert public attention away from its series of conundrums, including a slowing economy and a humiliating defeat in a landmark court case against the Philippines that rendered its claims to the lion's share of the South China Sea legally unfounded.

"As China is being diplomatically cornered, it seems to be seeking some sort of breakthrough by riding the nationalist sentiment in the country," a diplomacy expert said. "This may be part of a reason why China is making a far greater response to the THAAD issue than we initially expected."

  

This graphic, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows the national flags of South Korea and China, along with a missile defense system. (Yonhap) This graphic, provided by Yonhap News TV, shows the national flags of South Korea and China, along with a missile defense system. (Yonhap)

China believes the deployment of another U.S. missile defense asset in a nearby location close could tip the security balance in favor of the U.S., particularly amid an intensifying rivalry between the two major powers over regional preponderance, observers said.

In particular, a THAAD battery can undermine China's so-called anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy, the centerpiece of which is to mobilize a series of military assets, such as coastal artillery to keep any hostile forces at bay.

Nam Chang-hee, international politics expert at Inha University, said that China's stronger-than-expected responses to the THAAD issue underscored Beijing's consternation over its failed "charm offensive" toward Seoul.

"China had launched a charm offensive toward South Korea as it apparently sought to bring it on the Chinese side away from the U.S. -- whereas China has given up its efforts to court Japan, which has already aligned its security fate strictly with that of the U.S.," he said.

"China has apparently thought of Seoul's THAAD deployment decision as Seoul having chosen Washington over it, and the decision might have caused serious consternation in China," he added.

Indeed, Beijing's charm offensive toward Seoul has had some salutary effect as evidenced by President Park Geun-hye's decision to attend a high-profile military parade in Beijing last summer, a move that triggered concerns both in Seoul and Washington that South Korea, America's core ally, is "tilting too much" toward China.

But Beijing's lack of understanding for the THAAD deployment has revealed "limits" to the bilateral relationship, observers pointed out.

China's strong denunciation of the allies' decision to deploy THAAD has also spawned concerns that Asia's largest economy, which is South Korea's top trading partner, could take some "retaliatory" steps in terms of sanctions.

But Seoul officials have downplayed such concerns, highlighting the two countries' deepening economic interdependence.

"The likelihood (of economic reprisal) is not that high," South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn said during a parliamentary session. "Basically, the South Korea-China relationship is highly (interconnected). It is not the structure in which (China) can easily take economic retaliation."

  

This photo, taken on July 27, 2016, shows Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn speaking at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken on July 27, 2016, shows Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn speaking at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Amid China's explicit criticism of the planned THAAD deployment, South Korean users have filled their social media accounts with postings critical of Beijing.

"When China itself is striving to bolster its military heft, why is it making a fuss about bringing in (THAAD to Korea) for defensive purposes," one social media message reads.

To prevent the relationship between the two countries from further deteriorating, Seoul and Beijing should step up efforts to deepen bilateral communication and find ways to expand their economic cooperation, which will undergird the foundation of their relations, experts stressed.

"The two sides should constantly strive to expand areas of bilateral cooperation that could serve the strategic interests of both nations," said Kim Heung-kyu, an expert on China at Ajou University. "By expanding the shared interests, we can expect a positive effect on the bilateral relationship."

   sshluck@yna.co.kr

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