On March 7, the United States began installation of a Terminal High-Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system in on a golf course outside Seoul, South Korea. Washington and Seoul did so over strong economic and diplomatic pressure from Beijing, which argued that THAAD posed a threat to China. Additionally, in February and early March, North Korea carried out ballistic missile tests that simulated an attack on a U.S. base in Japan. Xi Jinping’s administration’s inability to effectively curb the behavior of its erstwhile ally or influence policy in South Korea arguably represent the greatest foreign policy setbacks since Xi took power in 2012. Since coming to power in late 2012, Xi has eagerly stoked nationalism and sought to project Chinese power around the globe. What the Xi administration can least afford is to be seen as losing face by failing to make good on its threats of retaliation against damages that “hostile anti-China forces” have supposedly inflicted upon China. Now that the Republic of Korea (ROK), the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as well as the United States have defied Beijing’s wishes, Xi could expose himself to criticism from opportunistic political rivals and nationalistic young people that see empty talk in response to THAAD.
Beijing began revving up anti-Seoul rhetoric in July 2016 when then-president Park Geun-hye decided to deploy THAAD hardware in response to the DPRK’s development of nuclear weapons. The advanced anti-missile system has a radar a maximum range of 2,000 kilometers, which takes in the bulk of China’s northeast. Despite American reassurance that THAAD would not be used to gather Chinese military intelligence, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has reiterated that “we are firmly opposed to the deployment of THAAD.” Spokesperson Geng Shuang noted in March that the Chinese position was “very firm” and no compromise would be entertained. Official media have discussed retaliatory steps including “virtually suspending diplomatic relations” with the ROK (Caixin.com, March 3; Global Times, February 28). Since early this year, Chinese have systematically boycotted Korean products ranging from food and beverage to computers and smartphones. Popular Korean singers and movie stars are barred from China. Editorial writers reflecting hawkish views within the Chinese establishment even hinted at some form of military action. For example, commentator Zhan Hao said that Beijing should “begin new military deployment against South Korea.” “We should push forward our military deployment, with more [weapons] targeting South Korea,” he indicated (Huanqiuzhiyin.com [Beijing], August 17, 2016).
Park’s impeachment in March could, in theory, provide an opportunity for de-escalation of tensions. Moon Jae-in, who is favored to win in presidential polls slated for early May, had spoken out against using the THAAD system. However, during his recent visit to Seoul, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson apparently secured a promise from senior civilian and defense officials that THAAD would remain. Moreover, the bulk of THAAD hardware has already been deployed (Yonhap News, March 22; Korea Herald, March 21). Although there is a remote possibility that the new Korean president may reverse Park’s decision, relations between China and the ROK have been dealt a devastating blow.
Driving a Wedge Between Partners
For the past decade, Beijing has enjoyed a relatively cozy relationship with South Korea. This is consistent with the CCP administration’s long-standing policy of weakening Washington’s “anti-China containment policy” by driving a wedge between the U.S. and its key allies such as South Korea. Until the THAAD crisis, Beijing enjoyed a close relationship with Park Geun-hye’s administration. Seoul disregarded American advice by joining China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in early 2015 and again in July 2015, when Park participated in the Tiananmen Square military parade in July 2015 that marked the 70th anniversary of China’s “defeat of fascism.” Park was the only leader from the “democratic camp” of the world to have lent legitimacy to Xi Jinping’s nationalistic extravaganza (BBC Chinese, August 20, 2015; Korea Herald, March 26, 2015).
The anti-ROK protests in different Chinese cities as well as the boycott of South Korean products, however, have fanned anti-Chinese feelings among ordinary South Koreans. According to the respected Asan Institute of Policy Studies in Seoul, China has replaced Japan as the “least liked country” among South Koreans. China’s rating in the Asan opinion poll fell from 4.31 in January to 3.21 in March on a scale of 0–10, with 10 representing the most favorable. (Japan’s score was 3.33, slightly better than China’s.) There are isolated incidents of Chinese students studying in South Korea being subjected to insults and even manhandling in Korean subway stations (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], March 21; Deutsche Welle Chinese, March 21).
Given that the root purpose of the deployment of THAAD is to deter Pyongyang’s clear and present threats against South Korea, Japan and the U.S.,—and that China is the only country that can influence the DPRK—Beijing does not have a moral high ground in the THAAD debate. While China has previously approved the United Nations Security Council sanctions against the DPRK, Beijing has left the impression that it is treating its nominal ally with kid gloves. Speaking about the Korean crisis after the just-ended National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang merely urged “[all] parties involved to de-escalate tensions and return to talks.” Earlier, Foreign Minister Wang Yi advocated the restart of the Six-Party Talks on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, irrespective of the fact that the talks, which involved diplomats from China, the two Koreas, Japan, the U.S., and Russia, were suspended in 2007 for lack of results. (China Daily, March 15; TVB, Hong Kong, March 8).
Given the Kim regime’s dependence on Chinese supplies of food, fuel and other economic aid, Beijing seems to have enough leverage to influence Pyongyang’s decision-making. As Peking University international relations expert Jia Qingguo noted last year, it was time that China turned up the pressure on the DPRK. “China’s position on the Korean issue should be steadfast, and its stance should be tougher,” he said. “We don’t want to run counter to North Korea’s [interests], yet we cannot afford to be weak and lax when it is threatening China’s major interests” (Phoenix TV, March 11, 2016). Yet as Deng Yuwen, a former researcher at the Central Party School and a frequent commentator on Korean issues said, Beijing had blundered largely because of the belief that the DPRK could act as a buffer between China on the one hand, and the U.S. and its Asian allies on the other. “The existence of North Korea itself, not to mention its ‘provocations,’ will force the U.S. and Japan to devote more resources to North Korea—and this will minimize pressure on China.” 
Threat to China’s Nuclear Deterrent?
There are, however, hawks who think that China must take drastic measures to counter what it perceives as a threat coming from the U.S., South Korea and Japan. The Beijing Youth Daily ran a commentary soon after the THAAD crisis broke that China would have no choice but to “use a new Cold War to counter the old Cold War.” “We should realign our strategic relations with Russia and North Korea so as to realize the strategic equilibrium of ‘three against three’” (Xinhua, August 13, 2016). The Global Times recently published an editorial arguing that China should vastly expand its nuclear arsenal to push back the American threat. “The U.S. has come to China’s doorsteps to engage in anti-missile operations,” the editorial said. “The original strategic balance [between China and the U.S.] has been disrupted. China should counter [the U.S. threat] by developing more nuclear warheads and more strategic nuclear missiles that could penetrate [American defense shields].” This followed articles published by Xinhua that predicted: “[an] exacerbated arms race among different countries [in Asia] and the escalation of tensions.” (Global Times, March 9; Xinhua, December 15, 2016).
While it is unlikely that Chinese reaction to THAAD will escalate in the near term, the nuclear clock is ticking fast in the DPRK. After launching four short-distance missiles in early March, Pyongyang said it would soon test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. Moreover, South Korean officials warned that the Kim regime could stage another nuclear test by the end of March. While visiting Seoul, Tillerson warned the DPRK—and China—that “the period of strategic patience is over.” Tillerson further added “all options are on the table,” which was interpreted as a threat that the U.S. and its allies in Asia might launch pre-emptive strikes to take out North Korean nuclear and missile facilities.
There are subtle signs that Beijing might take a tougher posture toward the DPRK, which is still, in theory, China’s ally. After the alleged assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam, Beijing announced in mid-February that it would stop importing coal from the DPRK (New York Times Chinese Edition, February 20; BBC Chinese, February 18). It is uncertain whether, in the run-up to his meeting with American President Donald Trump scheduled for later this month, supreme leader Xi might take more decisive measures to rein in Kim’s rogue regime. As Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University noted, China now faces strained ties with both Koreas for the first time in recent memory. “This is quite bad, in the long term, for the diplomatic security environment in Northeast Asia,” he said (DWnews [Beijing], March 19; Los Angeles Times, March 1). Whether Xi has the foresight and courage to drastically revamp China’s policy toward the two Koreas could determine whether he deserves the hallowed title of “core leader” that his civilian and military colleagues conferred on him half a year ago. Particularly at a moment when the U.S. is viewed as weakened and indecisive, continued failure to achieve foreign policy objectives might in formidable pushback from Xi’s colleagues in the Politburo, or from frustrated members of the PLA.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Hu Jintao Era: New Leaders, New Challenges.”
- Author’s interview with Deng Yuwen, March 2