As the Trump administration’s first security crisis looms large in northeast Asia, the South Korean Constitutional Court unanimously removed President Park Geun-hye from office. Her sudden removal from office has sharply shifted the balance of power between China, South Korea and the United States.
The United States has deployed the highly controversial Terminal High Altitude Defense System, designed to shoot down missiles coming from North Korea. China strenuously opposes T.H.A.D.D. because the country views that it will further stimulate North Korea’s nuclear program and encourage a threatening arms race.
Beijing had previously voiced strong objections to the installation of the missile system. Viewed by Washington as the United States’ peer competitor, the Trump regime has embarked on a major expansion in U.S. military spending that would encourage a heated arms race and nuclear weapons expansion, which Trump’s loose talk seemingly supports.
Furthermore, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already floated the idea during confirmation hearings of a U.S. naval and air blockade of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea. By introducing T.H.A.D.D. on the Korean peninsula, the Chinese would feel encircled by a new administration that had already approached Taiwan and questioned the One China policy belatedly affirmed by the White House.
Although South Korea tried to delay T.H.A.D.D., Geun-hye acceded to U.S. pressure. A strong plurality of South Koreans oppose the missile system.
Now that the disgraced Geun-hye is no longer in office, the center-left will win the elections in 60 days. The center-left reflects a strong popular opinion of softening relations with North Korea and the employment of T.H.A.D.D.
China has not remained a neutral observer. It immediately instituted a boycott of South Korean products and imports and put a hold on travel to South Korea. K-pop singers’ concerts are being canceled and films and television dramas are getting banned.
The ban is a strong rebuke to Seoul. South Korea’s economy relies heavily on China, to the tune of $142 billion annually. Thus, T.H.A.D.D. is already having an immediate effect on the world’s 12th largest economy.
It is left to wonder if T.H.A.D.D. will have the desired results that the U.S. military establishment expects. T.H.A.D.D., for all the hype, cannot block all missile attacks coming from North Korea.
The Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have pinned their hopes on China reining in North Korea’s pursuit of its nuclear program. U.S. policy makers have not done their homework: China may protect North Korea, but it is neither willing nor able to fully control North Korea. It can threaten Pyongyang but North Korea has a symbiotic relationship with Beijing that satisfies both parties, albeit not without rough spots.
China views any threats to North Korea with a jaundiced eye because the United States still has military bases and 28,000 troops in South Korea. If the two Koreas are reunited, Beijing fears that the U.S. military will then be on its border.
With T.H.A.D.D., the nation’s heavy-handed use of military is intended to maintain its dominance in northeast Asia. This comes after Trump’s annulation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade pact of Asian nations designed to hem in China’s growing regional influence and an essential part of Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”
Since T.H.A.D.D. exists to thwart North Korean designs, the question arises as to why the United States is unwilling to talk to North Korea. Under the Bush presidency, a six-party committee composed of China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States was established. Although a Chinese “initiative,” stalemate set in early and the six have not met in almost 10 years.
In late February, The New York Times announced backchannel talks of a panel of former high-level senior servants who had contact with North Korea. They would meet in New York with Choe Son Hui, director general of the North American Bureau in Pyongyang.
The State Department had issued visas for the North Korean delegation, who was in New York on March 1. At the last minute the Trump administration overruled the State department, thereby disbanding the meeting.
By denying Son Hui’s visa without an explanation, the United States lost the opportunity to foster the first contact with a high-level North Korean. Instead, the White House fell back on tried and unsuccessful sanctions.
It is not surprising since the Trump administration, like Obama’s, is looking to stare China down, as much as it feels it can topple North Korea’s Jong-un through threats and military posturing.