News analysis

Talk of military build-up surfaces amid China's fears over missile defence system

The threat of a military build-up near the North Korean border has surfaced in the Chinese media, which could be Beijing's latest ploy to prevent the possible deployment of a US-led missile defence system in South Korea, say analysts.

Ahead of a meeting between senior Chinese and South Korean diplomats yesterday on dealing with North Korea, the Global Times urged both sides to avoid forcing each other into a corner but to show mutual understanding over their respective concerns and constraints.

The tabloid said in an editorial that deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system could lead to a military build-up in China's north-eastern region and turn South Korea into an arena of Sino-US military competition, which would hurt Seoul's strategic interests.

"We know South Korea is in a difficult spot, just like China. But we shouldn't act with brute force. In trying to solve one problem, we shouldn't end up creating new or even bigger problems," it said.

 
 

Senior consultant Wang Haiyun of the China Institute of International Strategic Studies wrote in a commentary yesterday that Beijing should beef up ground and naval troops near its north-eastern borders to prepare for possible armed conflict on the Korean peninsula.

"We should make military and diplomatic preparations for all potential danger," he added.

China has reacted angrily after Seoul and Washington announced a resumption of talks over the Thaad deployment, following Pyongyang's acts of provocation that involved a surprise nuclear test on Jan 6 and a satellite launch on Feb 7.

Just like how it reportedly summoned the North Korean envoy last month over the purported "hydrogen bomb test", China has also summoned the South Korean ambassador to voice its protest over Thaad.

This is because the system's X-band mobile radar has a 3,000km to 4,000km range covering China and Russia, which means their weapon drills and capabilities might be exposed. There is also fear that it could see South Korea forming a military alliance with the United States and Japan.

While China has tried to downplay its influence over Pyongyang and signalled a hardening of its stance in its North Korean policy, talk of military reinforcement marked a first for China in the latest saga.

But some believe the US was merely threatening Thaad deployment to force China into backing harsher sanctions against North Korea.

Analyst Niu Jun of Peking University, however, said the Chinese reaction shows it is genuinely concerned about Thaad and the impact on China's strategic interests.

"The government could be using the media to exert pressure on South Korea not to allow the deployment," he told The Straits Times.

SIM University's East Asia specialist Lim Tai Wei said China has also signalled its objection to Thaad by sending its Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui to Seoul to meet his counterpart Mr Lim Sung Nam yesterday, and also making new pledges to back tougher punishment against Pyongyang.

But analysts think it might be too little, too late for Beijing to prevent Thaad's deployment, as South Korea and the US doubt that China would punish North Korea due to fears that the regime could collapse and lead to a flood of refugees and US military presence on its doorstep.

Said Professor Niu: "Also, there is a genuine need to curb the real threat from North Korea's nuclear weapons while China faces only a hypothetical threat from Thaad."

Dr Lim said there is increasing support for Thaad as South Korea is nervous following North Korea's two weapon tests.

"Also, President Park Geun Hye is under pressure that China is not doing much despite her China-friendly overtures."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'Talk of military build-up surfaces amid China's fears over missile defence system'. Print Edition | Subscribe