Officially, the U.S.-South Korean agreement to host equipment for a new THAAD missile defense system in South Korea is intended to defend against North Korean nuclear attacks. However, China and Russia view it as a security threat and have announced changes in their own nuclear weapons strategy and placement, with China more likely to prioritize an active response.
On July 8, the United States and South Korea announced an agreement to place a new U.S. missile defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korean territory. The expressed purpose of the system is to shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles aimed at U.S. and U.S.-allied targets as the missiles begin their descent. In a typical response, North Korean officials threatened extreme military retaliation against the United States and South Korea. Both Chinese and Russian officials have strongly criticized the deal and announced their intention to respond with changes in their own military planning.
In Asia, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea now possess nuclear weapons. The growing number of nuclear-armed states creates an increasingly complex environment for states that might attempt to use their possession of nuclear weapons or missile defense systems to influence other countries’ behavior, or to respond to security threats. The THAAD missile defense deal was announced in the midst of ongoing East Asian economic and security initiatives put in place by the United States and its allies, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and multiple challenges to China’s extensive territorial claims over most of the South China Sea.
As explored in a recent report by Matthew Kroenig for NBR, the growing number of nuclear states complicates deterrence strategy. Any move intended as a response to a single nuclear-armed state is also likely to provoke responses by other nuclear-armed states in the region. Each nearby state will examine—and respond to—the construction of new U.S. missile defense facilities in Northeast Asia according to its own strategic priorities. North Korea’s leaders primarily maintain their small nuclear arsenal to deter foreign intervention and to show their strength to domestic and foreign audiences. Therefore, the actual use of a North Korean missile in a deliberate nuclear attack is highly unlikely outside of extreme scenarios such as the imminent collapse of the North Korean regime. The THAAD system acts as an insurance policy against the eventuality of a North Korean nuclear attack and encourages American allies such as South Korea and Japan to trust in U.S. security guarantees in the face of regional tensions and nuclear threats.
Because of its capability to interfere with China’s use of its own nuclear missiles in a conflict, the THAAD deployment adds another item to the list of moves that Chinese officials argue are actually intended to encircle and contain China. Although Russian officials typically oppose U.S. military capabilities near their territory and often use U.S. security decisions to justify their own existing security plans, Russia’s extensive nuclear arsenal is not seriously threatened by the planned THAAD deployment. Russian officials are also largely preoccupied with their strategic concerns in Eastern Europe, entanglements in the Middle East, and their own relationship with China.
North Korean officials will continue building their own deterrence capabilities and emphasizing their military strength through new nuclear and missile tests and strong claims about their ability to defeat U.S. missile defenses, but remain unlikely to carry out their more extreme threats. Chinese officials will publicly point to this as another U.S. attempt to target and contain China, and will privately examine ways to minimize the impact of the THAAD system to maintain the deterrent strength of their own nuclear arsenal. Chinese officials are also likely to work to strengthen ties with South Korea and discourage South Korea’s security relations with the United States. It is not yet clear whether, in their attempts to do so, Chinese officials will take a harsher stance in their dealings with North Korea. Other than adjusting their missile placement in their Eastern territories, Russian officials are unlikely to respond with major policy changes as they focus on issues such as the crises in Syria and Ukraine.
Robert Thomas is the Managing Editor of Parabellum Report.