Chinese commentators have savaged the US deployment of the THAAD missile system to South Korea, arguing it could monitor Beijing's missile tests or even strike at the country. But dissenting voices say the risks have been overstated. Yumu Chen examines the claims underpinning their analysis.

THAAD missile system arrives in South Korea. Credit: Getty/NurPhotoBy Yumu Chen, IISS–Americas intern

The United States’ recent deployment of a ballistic missile defence system to South Korea has been condemned in China. Critics there have branded the arrival of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system an ‘ill-motivated’ move aimed at undermining China’s national security. Retaliation has included widespread boycotts of South Korean products and businesses, including the shutting down of 80% of 99 grocery stores operated by Lotte Mart, mostly for alleged violations of fire safety regulations. The chain is owned by the South Korean conglomerate that provided land for the THAAD basing. The Chinese government contends it did not direct the ‘coincidental’ protests, and that they simply reflect the popular will.

That claim can be taken with a pinch of salt. It is interesting to note, however, that Chinese public sentiment on this subject is far stronger than the prudent and ambiguous language employed by the country’s government suggests. Explaining China’s opposition to the deployment, a foreign ministry spokesman said THAAD’s monitoring and early warning range goes far beyond the peninsula, and that this ‘unilateral act’ would impede the process of nuclear disarmament and destabilise Northeast Asia. One has to read between the lines to see the country is worried that its nuclear and ballistic missile capacity will be compromised by THAAD’s arrival.

Concerns are expressed much more vividly elsewhere. Analysis on different media platforms argues the US is deploying THAAD in order to intercept China’s missiles and, potentially, attack the country. Commentators also argue that THAAD’s AN/TPY-2 radar will render portions of China’s airspace open to surveillance. It is these media claims that whip up public sentiment, which is already highly nationalistic owing to the recent territorial conflicts in the South China Sea. The overwhelming majority of Chinese people appear exasperated by the additional THAAD ‘offensive’.

Has the power of THAAD been overstated?

This sentiment is not universal, however. Several commentators have explained that from a technical point of view, THAAD’s interceptors would have little impact on China’s national security. In a 2014 commentary Wu Riqiang, Associate Professor of International Relations at Renmin University, argued that since the interceptors can only target missiles in their terminal phase at altitudes of 40 to 150km, they cannot hit China’s strategic missiles and submarine-based missiles, which would normally be in their boost phase when passing within range of the interceptors. This view was supported by Xi Yazhou, an independent military commentator, in a widely circulated article last year. Xi added that THAAD’s interceptors do not carry warheads, and said given their light weight, high speed and trajectory, they are not suitable for attacking ground targets or aircraft.

Major General Qiao Liang argued a similar point from a different perspective in a Weibo post last year. ‘There is no need for us to either worry about THAAD or exaggerate its power,’ Qiao wrote. Explaining that the system uses SM-3 or SM-5 missiles [sic; he likely meant SM-6] as interceptors, he said the 103 such weapons that the US has in the Western Pacific would be far from sufficient to contend with China’s missiles and aircraft, which outnumber them hundreds of times over. He argued the threat from the system is not significant unless, according to his estimation, over 5,000 interceptors are deployed. Given the potential cost and the fiscal situation of the US, Qiao questioned whether such deployment was viable.

Concerns over missile test monitoring

Opinions vary on the possibility of China losing airspace security and strategic advantage to the AN/TPY-2 radar. Most Chinese commentators still worry that this high-precision X-band radar, whose detection range reaches to inland China, will be able to gather radar signatures when the country conducts missile launch tests. They contend that the data would allow the US to study the respective trajectories of the warheads and decoys, improving the chance of intercepting any Chinese missiles launched against the US mainland.A THAAD missile system test launch. Credit: Flickr/US Missile Defense AgencyCountermeasures have been suggested. Li Bin, Professor of International Relations at Tsinghua University, has argued that while ‘the radar signatures of the front of the warhead and decoys are usually designed to be indistinguishable … the signatures of the back of the warhead and decoys may have some systematic differences’. He proposed that since THAAD’s AN/TPY-2 radar can detect these differences by monitoring China’s westbound missile launch experiments, in which the missiles turn their backs to the radar, China can address the problem simply by reversing the direction of the experimental missiles. Qiao, in his Weibo post, also suggested circumventing the radar by deploying super power jammers. Xi, on the other hand, argued that since the long-range detection of AN/TPY-2 radars requires large amounts of power, it is unlikely the US would use them for large-scale surveillance. In addition, the width of the radar beam of AN/TPY-2 radars is relatively small, which means they can only simultaneously detect targets within a relatively narrow range.

All agree THAAD represents blow to Chinese dominance

Dissenting voices argue that THAAD is not as powerful as most Chinese media coverage suggests, but its surveillance capability raises new concerns. But one point on which they agree with the general mood is that the US profits from the deployment because it has frustrated China’s efforts to woo South Korea away from its ally. China sees THAAD as a key element of America’s Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy, creating another obstacle to China’s dominance in Asia. Nevertheless, the fact that alternate points of view on THAAD are aired in China suggests there may be a way forward, under cooler consideration of the technical details underpinning the issue.

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