US deployment of anti-missile system in South Korea angers China

China fears Terminal High Altitude Area Defence will upset regional security balance

A handout photo showing parts of an advanced US missile defence system arriving at Osan Air Base in South Korea on Monday evening. Photograph: EPA

A handout photo showing parts of an advanced US missile defence system arriving at Osan Air Base in South Korea on Monday evening. Photograph: EPA


One day after North Korea fired four missiles into the sea near Japan, China was weighing up perceived threats from both Pyongyang and the United States as South Korea began deployment of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system.

South Korea says it is installing the system because of the heightened nuclear threat from the North, but China believes the THAAD’s powerful radar system could be used against its forces, upsetting the regional security status quo.

Beijing has stepped up trade retaliation with the closure of two dozen retail stores of South Korea’s Lotte Group, which approved a land swap of a golf course last week to allow it to install the system.

The first elements of the THAAD system, including two launchers, arrived at Osan air base in Pyeongtaek, 70km south of Seoul, on Monday, the US and South Korean militaries said, quoted by the Yonhap news agency.

“The deployment could be completed within one or two months and it can be operational as early as April,” said a Seoul military official.

In China, the official Xinhua news agency reported how the installation had begun “despite continued, repeated oppositions from neighboring countries and residents” and said it would damage China’s security interests.

“THAAD in South Korea will bring arms race in the region as the US missile defence strategy can be likened to a fight between spear and shield. More missile shields of one side inevitably bring more nuclear missiles of the opposing side that can break through the missile shield,” Xinhua said.

Nuclear weapons

China is a friend of North Korea, and was its ally in the 1950-53 Korean War which divided the peninsula and ended in an armistice rather than peace, but their relationship has been strained by the North’s nuclear programme.

“China won’t allow South Korea to topple the North’s regime through war and then unify the Peninsula,” the state-owned Global Times said.

“The possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula is growing. China should prepare itself for all eventualities. It should persuade Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang to cease their provocations and make concerted efforts to create the conditions for the North’s denuclearisation and permanent peace on the Peninsula,” it said in an editorial.

The Chinese are also closely watching developments in Washington where the Trump administration has said it is considering redeploying tactical nuclear weapons in the South for the first time since 1991.

Meanwhile, North Korean state news agency KCNA reported that leader Kim Jong-un had personally supervised the launches on Monday and that the missiles were positioned to strike US bases in Japan. Pyongyang has made a series of threats over joint US-South Korean military exercises, code-named Foal Eagle, which kicked off last week.

“In the hearts of artillerymen ... there was burning desire to mercilessly retaliate against the warmongers going ahead with their joint war exercises,” KCNA reported.

US Pacific commander admiral Harry Harris said in a statement that the deployment was about keeping North Korea’s nuclear programme in check. “Continued provocative actions by North Korea, to include yesterday’s launch of multiple missiles, only confirm the prudence of our alliance decision last year to deploy THAAD to South Korea,” he said.