South Korea’s THAAD undermines strategic stability? it doesn’t have to be so

So, the deployment of THAAD (terminal high-altitude area defence) systems in South Korea have, predictably, gone ahead. So too, the backlash against this development has been predictable. The language of the Xinhua report was predictably harsh: the US deployment of THAAD is designed to “neutralize China and Russia’s nuclear deterrents and put their national security at risk.” The report goes on to say, “those who wish to scare China will be deeply disappointed, for China has never, nor will ever, bowed down in the face of external security threats.” It accuses South Korea of “skating on very thin ice by aiding the United States in compromising China’s legitimate security interests. It is also destabilizing the strategic balance as well the stability of the region, which it claims that it set out to maintain in the first place.” Finally, it warns South Korea that it should “wake up and realize that China has never been a source of regional tension and instability, and its neighborly diplomatic philosophy of amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness, should not warrant schemes that undermine the country’s national security [and that] Seoul should also realize that it is amity and goodwill between neighbors, rather than a handful of high-tech weapons, that constitutes the true shield of regional peace and stability.”

Eric Gomez argues that China’s concerns might not be entirely misplaced. He argues, “If the survivability of China’s relatively small nuclear arsenal is threatened, it would make sense for Beijing to make adjustments in doctrine and weapons technology that bolster survivability and keep the assured in “assured retaliation.” Changes to China’s no first use doctrine would be a major policy shift and face domestic hurdles.” In other words, THAAD in South Korea might just encourage China into abandoning its existing “no first use” policy and adopting pre-emption as a strategic option. As he argues, “China faces a “use it or lose it” problem, while the United States could face a window of opportunity to destroy Chinese nuclear forces as early as possible in a conflict. The risks of a crisis or conventional conflict escalating to the nuclear level become more acute.”

Principal to China’s concerns is that THAAD in South Korea can erode the effectiveness of China’s nuclear deterrent. Supposedly, the radar systems that are part of THAAD can be used to gather important data on Chinese nuclear warheads, distinguishing the dummy warheads from real nuclear warheads in China’s ballistic missiles. Given the small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, its ability to assure destruction – through deception – is therefore critical to its deterrent posture.

However, as Chris Buckley argues, the deployment of THAAD does not result in a “significant improvement in the ability of the US to monitor Chinese missile tests”. Radar systems in Japan and Taiwan already provide the US with the capacity to closely monitor Chinese nuclear tests. Rather, “China’s real, underlying worry appears to be that THAAD could open the door to a much wider, more advanced fence of anti-missile systems arrayed around it by US allies [which] would magnify Chinese worries about the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent, and entrench Chinese fears of encirclement by a coalition knitted together by a shared anti-missile system.”

Furthermore, China could adopt several measures to overcome this potential problem. It could, as a recent Global Times report suggested, abandon its “no first use” doctrine, as noted earlier. Alternatively, China could “respond by spending more on its nuclear, missile and anti-missile forces “to ensure survivability of a second-strike force, and expanded penetration aids and decoys to defeat US missile defences in the event of a second strike.” China could also accelerate the deployment of its road-mobile Dongfeng-41 which can carry multiple warheads. Finally, “China is also working on a “glide technology to alter the trajectory of a warhead as it nears its target, which could be used to overcome US missile defences in the long term””.

None of these arguments about THAAD potentially adversely affecting strategic stability is fundamentally flawed. They all make sense. None of the speculated Chinese reactions is counter-intuitive. I fully expect any of the speculated reactions to come true – indeed, I do not rule out a combination of any of these reactions from happening.

But here’s my problem with these arguments: they all strike me as structurally deterministic. THAAD in South Korea MAY, JUST MAY result in undermining strategic stability between China and the US. But it doesn’t have to be so!

I would argue that there is a necessary human element to strategic stability. Policy makers have to WANT to resort to the use of force in the event of a crisis. If these policy makers decide that the crisis does not threaten or even undermine core national interests, then it is unlikely to result in the use of force. In other words, “core national interests” can be up for grabs; it is not carved in stone. Even if a crisis potentially undermines core national interests, policy makers still have to make the call to resort to the use of force.

Furthermore, there are mechanisms that allow adversarial countries to manage crises between them, to do everything they can to prevent an otherwise uncontrollable spiral towards the decision to use force.

THAAD may just undermine strategic stability, but that is not a given!

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