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(News Focus) China's objections to S. Korea's THAAD unlikely to rupture united front against N. Korea: experts

2016/08/11 11:43

By Koh Byung-joon

SEOUL, Aug. 11 (Yonhap) -- China voicing its displeasure at South Korea's planned deployment of a U.S. missile defense system is unlikely to reach the point where it ruptures the united front set up to tackle North Korea's nuclear and missile provocations, analysts here said Thursday.

What South Korea has to do right now is to prevent the ongoing internal feud over Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) from getting worse and build internal consensus as soon as possible, experts on international affairs said. They said such a development will eliminate wishful thinking on the part of Beijing that Seoul will second-guess its decision on the missile defense shield.

In July, South Korea and the United States unveiled a plan to install a THAAD battery on the peninsula by end-2017 to counter the North's mounting nuclear and missile threats.

China has strongly objected to the plan on worries that it would undermine its strategic security interests. Seoul has denied any intention to target countries other than the North.

Ever since the THAAD decision was reached, Beijing has been hitting South Korea hard, with its state-run media taking a leading role in the "South Korea bashing" drive, publishing harshly worded stories every day that zeroed in on the Seoul government and even its president.

Concerns reached a new high on Wednesday as Beijing was reported to have in effect hampered the United Nations Security Council's push to issue a chairman's statement denouncing the North's latest missile provocations by forcing the inclusion of its opposition to THAAD despite opposition from other members.

This has prompted worries that prolonged discord between Seoul and Beijing over THAAD could eventually chip away at the foundation of a strong partnership needed to fight against the North's nuclear and missile program. Even some Chinese scholars recently warned that there is a possibility that the Seoul-Beijing alliance could be put in jeopardy.

Analysts here agreed that China has gone too far by linking the THAAD issue with global efforts against the North but noted that it would not go as far as to risk its close ties with South Korea or jeopardize its reputation by reneging on its promise to work toward denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

"China seems to be voicing its displeasure through every possible way," Choi Kang, vice president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. "The UNSC's failure in issuing a statement on the North's missile launches can be understood in the context in China venting its anger at South Korea."

   "But I wonder how long China will keep doing that. It will not likely push the envelope too far to the point where things go completely awry between the two countries," he added.

Choi said that too much South Korea bashing could cause Seoul to move away from China and push it toward the United States, a scenario that Beijing would have a hard time swallowing given all the effort it has made to cultivate the current favorable ties.

Yun Duk-min, chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, stressed that China's relations with South Korea are so important from a strategic perspective that Beijing would not let the THAAD issue shake up the foundation of bilateral relations.

"It would be mutually harmful if they shake up the foundation," he said. "China would surely suffer a huge loss in that South Korea is an important neighbor, one of its few neighbors that it enjoys good relations with."

   "If it really abandons the united front to deal with North Korea, it would also make people doubt Beijing's status as a global power, a path China would not take in the end," he added.

South Korea and China have worked closely especially since March when the UNSC adopted the toughest-ever resolution condemning the North's fourth nuclear test in January.

Beijing has repeatedly said that it supports denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

In a recent meeting with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se in Laos, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that the THAAD deployment decision has hurt the trust between the two countries but he still reasserted his commitment to denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula.

A group of people stage a protest in front of the Defense Ministry on Aug. 4, 2016, demanding the government withdraw its decision to deploy a THAAD battery. (Yonhap) A group of people stage a protest in front of the Defense Ministry on Aug. 4, 2016, demanding the government withdraw its decision to deploy a THAAD battery. (Yonhap)

THAAD has become not just a diplomatic hot potato but also a wedge that is causing a division in the country. There has been endless debate on its effectiveness to protect the country from the North's threats or whether it would be safe for people living near the site. Politicians are also sharply divided with the ruling and opposition parties not seeing eye-to-eye on the matter.

Critics blame the government for not making enough efforts to explain the reason to deploy THAAD to neighboring countries and its own people. They said that what it needs right now is a move to build consensus.

"The most important thing is a unified public opinion. China's intention might be to take advantage of any noise coming from us with an aim to deepen the divide," said Choi of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. "Explanation and persuasion efforts should be bolstered to find common ground."

   Observers expect that a "watershed" moment will come at the summit talks of group of 20 leaders in Hangzhou next month. Where the leaders of the two countries have a chance to meet and exchange their views on hot issues including THAAD. The gathering could be critical for breaking up the current diplomatic logjam.

"It would be hard for China to create another hostile front at a time when it is preoccupied with the territorial issue over the South China Sea dispute," a diplomatic source said. "Things are expected to subside soon before the G20 summit, which will likely serve as a watershed moment for South Korea-China relations."