×

Saber rattling: China and US at a dangerous military tipping point

China is lashing out at South Korea and Washington for the deployment of a powerful missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, deposited at the Osan Air Base in South Korea on Monday evening.

The deployment of THAAD follows several ballistic missile tests by North Korea in recent months, including the launch of four missiles on Monday, three of which landed in the sea off the coast of Japan. Though THAAD would help South Korea protect itself from a North Korean missile attack, China is vocally protesting the deployment of the system, claiming it upsets the "strategic equilibrium" in the region because its radar will allow the United States to detect and track missiles launched from China.

North Korean provocations aside, THAAD's arrival on the Korean Peninsula comes amid heightened tensions between the new U.S. administration and China, as well as uncertainty surrounding the U.S. military's commitment to its security relationships in the region and around the world. Within that context, THAAD's deployment packs a significant amount of symbolic firepower alongside its battery of interceptor missiles.

Already there has been a blacklash. Liu Yuan, a retired Chinese general who is generally outspoken on Chinese security matters, wrote for China's state-run Global Times that the Chinese military could conduct a "surgical hard-kill operation that would destroy the target, paralyzing it and making it unable to hit back."

Though such military actions are unlikely, China has already forced the closing of 23 stores owned by Lotte, one of South Korea's huge family-run conglomerates (Lotte agreed to turn over a parcel of land in South Korea on which the THAAD system would be placed). State media has also encouraged Chinese citizens to boycott South Korean products, a move that, if effective, could rob major South Korean companies, like Samsung and Hyundai, of a massive consumer market.

South Korea is reportedly considering filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization over China's economic retaliation. The commercial ramifications of THAAD could still escalate further.

What can THAAD do?

THAAD is a relatively new addition to the U.S. military's missile defense arsenal. Produced by Lockheed Martin (and priced at more than $1 billion per system), THAAD consists of a battery of truck-launched interceptor missiles and a powerful X-band radar that can detect, track and target inbound missile threats.

In other words, THAAD can see enemy ballistic missiles coming and can knock them out of the sky as they plunge toward their targets. Unlike some missile interceptors that navigate into the proximity of a missile and then explode to destroy or deflect the incoming threat, THAAD's missiles simply slam into their targets head-on, destroying them purely through kinetic force.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency.
U.S. Department of Defense | Missile Defense Agency | Reuters
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test, in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency.

THADD's military value is spelled out in its name. It intercepts ballistic missiles during their "terminal" phase — that is, when they have passed their apogee and begun falling toward their targets. They can intercept these missiles at very high altitudes, up to roughly 90 miles above Earth's surface. Unlike other missile defense systems, like the Patriot PAC-3 that are designed mainly to defend a particular patch of ground, THAAD's powerful AN/TPY-2 radar can both monitor and defend large areas from short- and medium-range missiles.

There are a number of things THAAD cannot do, however. Given that its missiles do not contain a warhead, its batteries are fairly useless as an offensive weapon, a characteristic that some consider a feature from a political standpoint. In a statement announcing THAAD's deployment to South Korea, U.S Pacific Command was careful to note that "the THAAD system is a strictly defensive capability and it poses no threat to other countries in the region."

Moreover, THAAD is not designed to destroy missiles while they are boosting skyward, nor can it shoot down something like an intercontinental-range ballistic missile, or ICBM. (Intermediate and intercontinental range missiles travel far too fast for systems like THAAD to target and intercept.) In a scenario in which North Korea or China were to launch missiles bound for targets in the United States, THAAD batteries in South Korea and Japan would not be able to target those weapons.

A historical perspective

China has long vowed retaliation if the United States should deploy THAAD to South Korea, citing security concerns that center more on the radar than the interceptor missiles. THAAD's radar is powerful enough to peer into Chinese airspace, military officials there argue, allowing the United States to monitor Chinese missile tests and provide early warning of any Chinese missile launch, upsetting the strategic balance of power.

Following the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in November, one Chinese official called the potential deployment of THAAD a "political weather vane" for the new U.S. administration and its relationship with China.

"This marks a real act of courage on the part of the South Korean government, working with its American allies, to do what these two countries together feel is a necessary and appropriate action in the face of Chinese bullying." -Tom Karako, senior fellow, Center for Strategic and Int'l Studies


But as Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey in California, points out, China's objection to THAAD rings somewhat hollow. Radar installations in Taiwan, Japan and even Qatar already have the capacity to peer into Chinese airspace, to say nothing of the many space-based satellites that provide missile tracking and early warning capabilities to the United States. "It's not that [China's objections] are irrational, but it's more about what the deployment symbolizes than the radar's actual capability," Lewis says.

In other words, beyond its technical capability THAAD's deployment symbolizes further solidification of the military ties between the United States and South Korea, ties Beijing has sought to loosen for decades.

"I think the photo op really helped seal the deal for some of the political and assurance significance," Tom Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says of the video released showing the first pieces of the THAAD system rolling off the C-17 at Osan on Monday evening. "This marks a real act of courage on the part of the South Korean government, working with its American allies, to do what these two countries together feel is a necessary and appropriate action in the face of Chinese bullying."

If THAAD is a political weather vane, Beijing now knows which way the wind is blowing. Why is this happening now?

The United States and South Korea declared their intention to deploy THAAD to South Korea last year (and have discussed the possibility going back as far as 2013), but China's staunch opposition to the deployment and other geopolitical considerations kept the United States from doing so.

One reason the United States and South Korea are moving to deploy THAAD now, Lewis says, is likely due to the fact that at least one of the major political stumbling blocks has been removed. South Korean president Park Geun-hye is currently embroiled in political scandal and facing impeachment, creating a unique political opportunity for the South Korean government.

"It's very controversial, the THAAD system," Lewis says. "And whoever comes after Park will have the system in place without the responsibility of having agreed to it."

What lies ahead

Consequences — intended and not — from the deployment of THAAD will continue to manifest themselves over the coming weeks and months. In terms of positive fallout, U.S.-based makers of missile defense systems like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are positioned to benefit from growing ballistic missile threats across Asia, the Middle East and Europe — threats underscored by THAAD's deployment to South Korea.

A recent note to investors by Cowen and Co. defense analyst Roman Schweizer cites both Lockheed Martin (maker of THAAD) and Raytheon (maker of various interceptor missiles, as well as components of THAAD's radar and tracking systems) as likely beneficiaries of an ongoing uptick in global defense expenditures, in large part due to their missile defense technology.

However, one potential negative consequence of THAAD's deployment stems from the sense of complacency that such systems can foster. THAAD can soften the effect of a missile salvo, but it's not a silver bullet for either North Korean or Chinese ballistic missile arsenals that are both growing in size and sophistication.

"They're missiles, and this is missile defense, and for a lot of people that checks all the boxes," Lewis says. "The unintended consequence I can see is that you don't want the South Korean people to think this solves the North Korean missile problem, because it doesn't."

— By Clay Dillow, special to CNBC.com

Asia-Pacific News

World Markets

Latest Special Reports

  • A globe-trotting look at the world of investing, from developed Europe and Asia trends to the least-traveled frontier markets.

  • Unlock the keys to building a successful long-term financial plan: manage your money, grow your money, and protect it.

  • Watch investments

    Covering the full set of tools and strategies for long-term investors: How to take everyday market fluctuations in stride, and when to know it’s time to take action or protect against a major economic shifts.