China, the US, and THAAD: A Case for the End of Ballistic Missile Defense

Imagine this: A nuclear-arms race between the US and China. Collapse of the “No First Use” doctrine of deterrence. North Korean missiles actually being able to reach the US mainland. 

As frightening as these phrases sound, all of them are very possible within the next decade. China or America could easily break their pledge to not use nuclear weapons first in warfare. This may seem like mere alarmist rhetoric, but the empirical track record of actions by states foreshadows this scenario as plausible. Just seven months ago, China launched its very own Starry Sky-2, a hypersonic aircraft that moves at “six times the speed of sound.” High tech aircraft isn’t the only new development in Chinese military technology, as hypersonic glide vehicles (or HGVs) and multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) put Chinese modernization at light years ahead of the US. The DF-ZF hypersonic vehicle has been successfully tested 7 times, and MIRV technology would allow China to launch multiple warheads from a single missile at a given time. 

It would be misleading to characterize China as an irrational actor who seeks modernization as a means to revisionism. After all, the universal law of cause and effect would deem China’s actions as stemming as an effect. So – what is the cause? 

US ballistic missile defense systems have elicited a hard-line response from China, and justly so. These systems attempt to intercept missiles during their trajectory in air, and some scientists and policymakers are even attempting to accurately take down missiles during boost phase. THAAD, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, is exactly that system – a form of ballistic missile defense (BMD) that is being deployed in South Korea to counter the North Korean threat, or so the US claims. 

Wait – if the US deploys THAAD in South Korea, why would China care? Are we not just deploying it to protect our ally against a potential threat from the North? 

Many would point to the necessity of THAAD as a resource to counter the North Korean threat. This argument is misleading, as THAAD is only “designed to intercept missiles within a range of 200 kilometers.” The unit’s location in Seongju County falls out of the range of Seoul, South Korea’s capital and most populous city.

In addition, THAAD doesn’t prevent a North Korean conflict – it causes it. There are three key reasons for this. To start off, the empirical track record proves so. When the Reagan administration proposed “Star Wars,” the Soviet Union responded by upping its nuclear stockpile. This is basic IR theory 101 – states respond to military threats militarily. Second, there are geographic limitations for why THAAD cannot prevent a conflict. The geographic dimensions of the Korean peninsula make it extremely difficult to shoot missiles down, as the peninsula is “mountainous and lack[s] spatial depth.” While this technology seems promising, physics tends to err on the side of caution – BMD has a “dismal flight test record of nine successful intercepts in 17 attempts since 1999.” Lastly, the status quo proves the uniqueness of the situation. Currently, the US already has BMD elsewhere in Northeast Asia and North Korea is still testing new missiles. If ballistic missile defense was such a good deterrent, why hasn’t North Korea ended its testing? There clearly is no fear of US capabilities or practices in the region. If anything, THAAD is just another match that ignites the larger flames of the North Korean threat. 

THAAD is much more political than it seems. This system is strategically positioned in Korea for other reasons – specifically to bolster a US presence in Asia. THAAD’s AN/TPY-2 radar has such a long range that it can peer into the Chinese mainland, strong enough to even detect Chinese missiles in centimeters through electromagnetic reflection. China’s concerns “come not from the interception component of THAAD, but rather the detection capability” which renders its military secrecy useless. This is why China has been developing MIRVs and HGVs. Both of these forms of tech provide ballistic credibility by rendering the radar system obsolete, in case of a necessary attack. 

In the long run, it might be necessary for the US to end ballistic missile defense in South Korea. It is uncertain whether a Trump presidency (which tends to be hawkish) would support this type of policy. In the meantime, it might be worthwhile for the United States to develop transparency and confidence building measures with China over the deployment of THAAD. These could include agreements about data collection and forcing the US to not “conduct engagements beyond the range of their […] radar.” This might give the US the best of both worlds – maintaining THAAD but assuring China of its non-encroaching use. If neither of these worlds are met, the US might have to prepare for a hardline world of Chinese revisionism. 

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