Chinese opposition to South Korea’s deployment of the THAAD missile defense system is less about missiles and more about efforts to weaken the US network of formal and informal alliances in Asia that has underpinned the regional order for the last seventy years.
The THAAD controversy displays China’s familiar modus operandi: First, pick a fight over an allegedly offensive act. Next, follow up with vitriol and veiled threats, and then inflict economic pressure — all while declaring the exercise the spontaneous reaction of the righteously offended Chinese people.
This sequence played out to form in South Korea in recent months, highlighted by verbal assaults on Seoul and fierce pressure on Lotte Group’s business operations inside China. (Lotte sold the land being used for THAAD batteries in South Korea.)
Other tactics include restricting Chinese tourism to South Korea and blocking online trade in South Korean goods.
In addition to disruption caused by China’s hectoring and economic sanctions in South Korea, and other targeted countries, opposition voices are energized, claiming the US relationship isn’t worth the economic or security costs of offending Beijing.
And even if the alliance with the United States remains intact, it is at least shaken and may face self-imposed constraints in the future over worries about China’s reactions. All in all, a win-win for Beijing.
A similar scenario played out with the Philippines in 2012 after then-President Benigno Aquino deepened defence ties with the United States and authorized an expanded US military presence in the Philippines.
China picked a fight over the Scarborough Shoals — well within the Philippine economic exclusion zone — bamboozling the Americans with a promise (unkept) to withdraw its ships once the Philippine Navy departed the area.
Then it made threats, and applied economic pressure by blocking Philippine banana imports, with the promise of more hardships to come.
This worked well, helped along by the United States’ supine responses to the Scarborough Shoal takeover and the later Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling against China’s behavior in the South China Sea.
This raised doubt in local minds about America’s commitment under the U.S.-Philippine Defense Treaty. And once Rodrigo Duterte — already ill disposed towards the United States — became president, relations with the United States soured further. The U.S.-Philippine alliance is not finished, of course, but it has been jolted.
China’s efforts against the Japan-U.S. alliance started in earnest in 2012 over the Japanese government’s alleged “nationalization” of the Senkaku islands.
A barrage of invective was followed by increasingly frequent and sizable intrusions into Japanese waters by Chinese fishing boats and other government vessels, with China’s Navy over the horizon.
Beijing then banned the export of vital rare-earth metals to Japan and so-called spontaneous protests against Japan broke out in China, to include attacks on Japanese-owned businesses. Even driving Japanese cars was risky for a time.
All this raised doubts in Japan over the US commitment, in addition to creating worries on the US side about being dragged into a war on Japan’s behalf “over some rocks” (the Senkakus).
Chinese efforts to pressure Japan continue to this day, but have had the unintended effect of motivating Tokyo to strengthen its defenses and hardened public attitudes towards China.
And pressure from the People’s Republic of China has even prompted two US presidents to publicly reaffirm America’s willingness to defend Japan and its disputed territory.
As some observers note, Beijing is better at tactics than strategy — and even its tactics don’t always work.
Indeed, the South Koreans have not yet backed down over THAAD, and even a leading “leftist” presidential candidate sounds less opposed to the missile-defense system than he did a couple months ago. China is nonetheless persistent.
Other US Alliances
Among ASEAN nations, Singapore is particularly supportive of the US military presence in East Asia and provides valuable support to US forces operating in the region.
Last November, Hong Kong authorities seized a shipment of Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) armored vehicles en route back to Singapore from military training in Taiwan.
This was accompanied by implicit threats from China that Singapore would suffer economically if it is too pro-American and too assertive in challenging China’s actions in the South China Sea. The armored vehicles were released after a suitable period of humiliation, as part of a thinly disguised effort to upset the Singapore-US relationship.
Even the Australia-U.S. alliance is in China’s sights. Beijing is making an issue of Australian military patrols in the South China Sea, and warning against joint patrols with the United States.
Included are threats the China-Australia economic relationship will be harmed if Australia challenges Beijing more than it likes.
This is causing unprecedented debate in Australia over the depth and even the wisdom of the longstanding US-Australia defense (and indeed political) relationship. As with the Philippines, the U.S. alliance is still intact, but is not quite what it was.
Taiwan has been the recipient of Chinese verbal and economic intimidation for decades, though it ramped up in 2016.
This followed the overwhelming win of President Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party’s in elections and her refusal to follow former President Ma Ying-jeou’s accommodationist policies towards the mainland.
Beijing has also worked in the United States to strengthen a constituency in foreign-policy, political and business circles that believes US support for the Taiwan Relations Act is not worth sacrificing the larger US-China relationship over. This has led to doubts in Taiwan over American support.
China’s alliance-busting efforts are also nimble and its does what’s necessary to capitalize — at US expense — on openings provided by domestic politics in Asian nations, and on US missteps.
For example, the China took advantage of the Obama administration’s shunning of the Thai regime — a longstanding treaty ally — following a military coup in 2014. Beijing deftly insinuated itself with the Thai government and expanded military ties, while the United States looked primly away — apparently preferring Egyptian coups to those in Thailand.
Another example is Malaysia, with which the United States has had a longstanding — even if informal — defense partnership and solid economic ties. China capitalized on internal political disputes and economic difficulties facing Najib Razak’s government in recent years, and made considerable inroads.
Message to Trump
In this respect, the Donald Trump administration will do well to avoid focusing narrowly on specific events and responding to them, and instead consider the larger regional “architecture” and prioritize shoring up America’s formal and informal alliances in the Indo-Pacific.
Much depends on these alliances, which are voluntary and exist because both sides want them. However, they depend on a belief in US commitment. That commitment has unfortunately been called into question in recent times.
The Obama “pivot” recognized this, but was imperfectly carried out.
The Trump administration looks set to reassure anxious alliance partners by beefing up the United States’ military presence and more importantly ending the long-standing “accommodationist” policy toward China. This policy allowed Beijing to steal a march on the United States and improve its military position — while whittling away at U.S. alliances in the region.
Proving commitment is not only a military thing — TPP withdrawal also damaged perceptions of US commitment. The Trump administration might give serious thought to coming up with a trade arrangement, using whatever name or structure works, and restore the political damage done by scrapping TPP.
Trump’s team should be alert for what China is trying to accomplish — and remember that THAAD is no more about missiles than the South China Sea dispute is about fish. It’s alliances that are at stake.
Grant Newsham is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo.