East Asia diplomacy getting from THAAD to worse

Mar 08, 2017 11.15AM |
 

by Daniel Yap

THE KL-Pyongyang row over the murder of Mr Kim Jong Nam is getting out of hand with 11 Malaysians trapped in North Korea, but it’s just one part of the worsening diplomatic situation in East Asia. The fallout started with a few missiles falling out of the sky into the sea off the coast of Japan on Monday morning (Mar 6).

On Tuesday morning (Mar 7), North Korean state media announced that the four missiles, three of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone about 350km from shore, were drills for a plan to strike directly at US bases in Japan, where the US has stationed about 54,000 troops.

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Japan upgrades its alert level to the maximum and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe gets on the phone with US President Donald Trump. Mr Abe says that the North Korean threat “has entered a new stage”.

At about the same time on Tuesday morning, the row between China (North Korea’s biggest ally) and South Korea took a new turn as South Korea announced that it would consider making an official complaint to the World Trade Organisation over what it sees as China violating their free trade deal.

China has in recent months tried to exert pressure on South Korea by banning the streaming of K-pop performances, stopping K-pop stars from performing in China, causing the shutdown of 23 supermarkets run by South Korean Lotte Group, and ordering tour agencies to stop selling trips to South Korea. Why is China doing this? THAAD.

THAAD is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile system developed by Lockheed Martin that South Korea and the US agreed to deploy in South Korea in July 2016. Remember China’s state-run Global Times newspaper that had harsh words for Singapore during the Terrex incident? It said that South Korea was “tying itself to the US chariot and turning into an arrogant pawn of Washington in the latter’s military containment against China.”

But why would China get upset about a purely defensive system like THAAD? Isn’t it reasonable for South Korea to defend itself, especially with North Korea going big on missiles?

China is trying to project military power across the region as part of its One Belt One Road framework. China is upset because THAAD is a projection of US power into the region and because the system will take away some of China’s offensive edge should war break out, including over the disputed South China Sea waters and islands, of which – hello – Malaysia is also a claimant. What a tangled web.

So now there are 11 Malaysians held de facto hostage in North Korea, which had fired missiles at Japan, triggering heightened tensions and paved the way for stronger US involvement in the region, which is upsetting China especially because…

We’re back to THAAD. Deployment for the system was previously announced to be completed in mid or late-2017. About 24 hours after the North Korean missiles splash down off the Japanese coast, the US Pacific Command announced that it had begun deploying THAAD overnight in South Korea, and that the system would be operational as early as April.

Quite a lot of people are going to get hot under the collar in the days and weeks to come. Expect nationalistic chest-thumping, threats, diplomatic shenanigans, strained trade, harsh words and escalations from the nations involved. And thank God war isn’t on the cards… yet.

Featured imagine from Wikimedia Commons. (CC0 1.0)

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