IN the confusing environment generated by US President Donald Trump, in which he has criticized his allies more than America’s opponents, the trip by Defense Secretary James M. Mattis to Seoul and Tokyo was reassuring, with the United States reiterating its defense commitments to South Korea and Japan. It was the first such reaffirmation of American policy by a senior administration official since the inauguration of the Trump administration.
China responded to the American statements as expected, denouncing the US-Korea decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad, anti-missile system and opposing America’s longstanding policy of including the Senkaku islands under the umbrella of the US-Japan security treaty. China claims those islands, which it calls the Diaoyus.
Since Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, he has managed to muddy the waters by constant carping criticism of his allies, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Australia, making it unclear whether the US still stood by its allies in East Asia. The Mattis trip was useful in that Washington has now told the world that its defense commitments to South Korea and Japan remain unchanged. This will certainly help to maintain stability in the region.
Specifically, the US and South Korea pledged to proceed with the deployment of the Thaad system despite Chinese opposition during the Mattis visit. Washington and Seoul have insisted that the anti-missile system was purely defensive, designed to protect South Korea and Japan as well as American troops based in those two countries against a North Korean missile attack.
China, however, objects because it claims that the Thaad’s powerful radar could penetrate deep into northeastern China, not just North Korea. Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said deployment of Thaad “will jeopardize security and the strategic interests of regional countries, including China, and undermine the strategic balance in the region.”
However, Mattis said in Seoul: “Were it not for the provocative behavior of North Korea, we would have no need for Thaad out here. There is no other nation that needs to be concerned about Thaad.”
Before Mattis left on his trip, President Trump spoke on the phone with Acting President Hwang Kyo-ahn. According to the White House, the American leader “reiterated our ironclad commitment to defend” South Korea. So, the Mattis trip suggests that the Trump administration has returned to the conventional American relationship with its allies.
The Mattis visit eases somewhat the plight of the South Korean government, which is facing North Korean threats as well as criticism from China and tension with Japan over a new comfort women statue installed in front of the Japanese consulate in Busan. Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court is holding hearings to decide whether to accept the impeachment of suspended President Park Jeun-hye and possible early elections.
The political turmoil provides China with an opportunity to increase pressure on South Korea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in a meeting with South Korean legislators, called for a halt to the Thaad deployment.
China is waging economic warfare against South Korea. It is getting Korean companies to put pressure on their own government. The Chinese authorities have refused to approve imports of large amounts of South Korean cosmetics, allegedly on quality grounds. Top Korean entertainers have been banned from appearing on Chinese TV shows. And Korean proposals to operate chartered flights to China before the Lunar New Year holidays were not approved.
The Financial Times has reported that a Chinese foreign ministry official, Chen Hai, has visited major companies in South Korea and warned them that their business in China would suffer if the Thaad decision is implemented.
Now, China is arguing that the decision should not be implemented until a new government is in place. It is wooing the opposition Minjoo party, which opposed the Thaad deployment.
All this clearly violates China’s supposed policy of not interfering in another country’s internal affairs. But China, it seems, is ready to do anything to secure its own interests even though South Korea faces an existential threat from North Korea.
China is in a peculiar position. Without its assistance, North Korea could not survive. That is to say, without China, there would be no North Korean nuclear threat. And yet China says it is cooperating with the international community to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Now it is demanding that South Korea not install a weapons system that helps defend it from North Korean attack. China should realize, as the saying goes, that it cannot both run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.