A plan by the U.S. to deploy a missile shield in South Korea to deter the threat from North Korea has met with strong condemnation from Russia and China. So what’s the best strategy moving forward?
U.S. Army Pacific commander Gen. Vincent Brooks, left, and South Korean Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Lee Sun Jin during a welcome ceremony for Brooks at South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff in Seoul, May 10, 2016. Photo: AP
After much deliberation and discussion, the U.S. Department of Defense recently announced that the governments of South Korea and the U.S. had agreed to deploy the Thermal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in the southern part of South Korea to deter threats from North Korea.
The announcement has, expectedly, drawn condemnation from several Russian officials. Yevgeny Serebrennikov, a leading figure on the defense committee of the Russian Parliament’s upper house, declared that Russia would view THAAD in terms of its offensive capabilities, and that defense officials would explore the installation of a missile defense system in eastern Russia to counter THAAD.
Russia's foreign ministry also condemned THAAD's installation as a threat to "global strategic stability." This comes shortly after a meeting between Chinese and Russian officials in which the two sides issued a joint statement on global strategic stability.
In the statement, China and Russia called on countries to limit their military capabilities and counter global arms proliferation. The Russian foreign ministry further commented that THAAD's installation, rather than diffusing regional tensions, would exacerbate them.
In an interview with the Interfax news agency, a Russian foreign ministry official responded to a question regarding the possibility of a coordinated response between Beijing and Moscow over THAAD by simply reiterating the two countries' position on global strategic stability. The official did not elaborate with any substance or details, but it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which Russia and China pool their diplomatic efforts to stop installation of the missile shield.
In response to Russia's concerns, senior U.S. defense officials have attempted to assure their Russian counterparts that THAAD poses no direct threat to Russia's strategic deterrence capabilities. Echoing previous assurances that THAAD was only directed at North Korea, Pentagon spokesperson Gary Ross stated that THAAD would essentially be a supplement to existing missile defense systems in the region.
As Ross pointed out, THAAD would "contribute to a layered missile defense that would enhance the alliance's existing missile defense capabilities against potential North Korean missile threats." Ross also stated that the U.S. Defense Department was in contact with the "highest levels" of both the Russian and Chinese defense establishments.
Seoul and Washington have obviously taken this decision to deploy THAAD because they have agreed that it best serves the security interests of the U.S.-South Korea alliance. China and Russia have voiced their objections to this possibility from the outset, and officials from South Korea and the U.S. obviously took the objections of these two major powers into consideration. They have done so knowing that, even with North Korea as the primary and ostensibly sole factor under consideration, missile systems know no geographic boundaries.
While THAAD will potentially exacerbate tensions between China, Russia and the U.S., all parties must not let it overshadow the growing regional cooperation on the perceived common threat that North Korea and its weapons programs pose to the region.
The most critical step that Russia and the U.S. should take is the implementation of even greater confidence-building and transparency measures. John Kirby, a former defense official now working for the U.S. State Department, has offered to brief Chinese officials on how THAAD works. A similar arrangement with Russian defense officials operating in Russia's Eastern Military District could possibly help to assuage Russian concerns as well.
Yet, aside from the U.S. specifically demonstrating THAAD's operational functions, in general a greater level of transparency and openness between the U.S. and Russian militaries in Northeast Asia are needed. Russia has signed agreements on the prevention of dangerous military activities with various countries in the region, including China and North Korea, while Japan and Russia have also cooperated on openness and mutual assurances over military activity.
Russia and the U.S., therefore, should work to cooperate on THAAD as an extension of their shared views of the threat from North Korea. While THAAD is and will continue to be unsettling for Russia, it is unlikely that Russian objections will warrant a U.S. cancellation or withdrawal of the system. The key is communication, transparency and openness between Russian and U.S. military commanders in the region, so as not to exacerbate the already-existing tensions in the region.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.