By William Reynolds, a 2nd year undergraduate studying War Studies. From a British Armed Forces background, William follows the military capabilities of the West and the security issues in the Middle East with great interest, placing special emphasis on COIN and the experiences of individuals on the ground. William has worked as a Research Fellow for Dr Whetham in the Centre of Military Ethics and is a spammer of many articles on the King’s Middle East and North Africa Forum (MENA).
East Asia has seen a significant deployment of military hardware by the US and its allies in response to increasing military activity on the part of the Chinese. The deployment of Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) systems in South Korea and the planned deployment of the Japanese Izumo class Helicopter Destroyer in disputed regions have certainly raised the ire of the Chinese. Whilst one could speculate what the Chinese response to such activities will be, this piece will simply focus on why said deployments have taken place, and what about them has provoked the PRC.
THAAD is one of the most modern Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems available to the US in the short to intermediate ranges. The system operates by destroying an incoming missile via the kinetic energy of its own missile system. However, the drawback to the device is that it can only target the incoming weapon system once it is in its terminal phase of the flight. Essentially, the incoming missile is on its final approach when THAAD is finally able to identify, lock on and attempt to destroy the target.
Therefore, its deployment in South Korea (it should be operational by April according to PACOM sources) is clearly a result of North Korean missile testing. Assuming Mr Kim finally decided to watch the peninsula burn, THAAD would operate as South Korea’s very best hope of knocking out any incoming North Korean nukes.
So with THAAD only able to knock out intermediate missiles, and therefore unable to touch China’s ICBM’s, why does China view the deployment as a threat? There are two possible theories at this time. The X-band radar, which tracks targets for THAAD, is a powerful piece of kit. If it were to be turned westwards and pointed at Mainland China it could penetrate deep into Chinese territory. Naturally China is not particularly keen on US SIGINT monitoring Chinese airspace, where their own missile tests could be at risk. However, this assumes that the radar will be pointed that way. As the diagram highlights, pointing X-band westwards completely neutralises its primary task of watching North Korea for possible threats. It would be easier for USPACOM (United States Pacific Command) to deploy submarines or additional ISTAR (Information, Surveillance, Targeting Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) assets to watch the Chinese rather than waste expensive BMD systems on simple surveillance.
The second, and far more likely, possibility is Chinese fear of containment. China has always viewed the Korean peninsula a vital security interest and the threat of a US, RoK and Japanese integrated missile defence system is intolerable. Regional missile defence complicates much of China’s military planning and security interests as THAAD operates as an area denial system for much of China’s hardware. A common phrase in any military is ‘move to live’. Area denial weapons hamper and restrict options for the Chinese military if the region did indeed come to blows. Just as NATO worries about the A2/AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) systems in Kaliningrad, so does China worry about such systems on the Korean Peninsula.
This fear of containment influences much of China’s actions in the region. If one were to stand in Beijing, they would see the RoK and Japan to the East, Taiwan to the south and an increasingly US friendly Vietnam to the southwest. Whilst none of these countries operate as one single unit, the real possibility that these states, with US backing, could act to prevent Chinese movement clearly permeates Chinese policy. THAAD, as of this time, cannot be deployed on such a regional scale under one system. However, technology improves and the Americans have become quite adept at innovation when it comes to war.
This is not to say that China is justified in its opposition. Unable or unwilling to curtail North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, China has little right to interfere in the sovereign security decisions of the RoK. Indeed, it was China’s own policies that brought THAAD closer to the RoK. One cannot also help but view said opposition to a Korean BMD as hypocritical. After all, China is developing its own BMD system.
The JS Izumo represented a significant maritime development for the JMSDF (Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force). In the same class as the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Invincible, the ‘helicopter destroyer’ Izumo allows Japan to project power with both its helicopter detachment and on-board marines. Indeed, the designation ‘helicopter destroyer’ (DDH) is a somewhat new concept. Most destroyers in fleets around the world have the capacity to house one or two helicopters in order to conduct anti-submarine warfare or stop and searches. However, no known destroyers have the capacity to house such a vast quantity of aircraft. It is simply safer to ditch the political narrative and refer to the Izumo as what it truly is: a light aircraft carrier.
It is this designation that concerns China. Aircraft carriers are the offensive weapons of the fleet. Able to deploy air assets over large areas, carriers can project the power of its nation right into your city. Even if they have no airbases nearby. Thus, the deployment of one into the South China Sea, where Japan has no stakes or claims, is a worrying turn of events for China. Officially, the deployment is to test the ship on long duration operations. But it’s list of visits: Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, infer a different story. One could argue that this is a statement from the Japanese. That they are willing to leave their own waters and interests in order to support other Asian states in their quarrels. With the Izumo, they now have the capacity to do so.
China’s concerns with recent military activity are indeed justifiable. The deployment of THAAD and the Izumo show a significant jump in the ‘West’ orientated states security policies and manoeuvring. However, what China fails to realise is that it was through its own actions that such policies were brought about. A muscular belligerence concerning the ‘Nine-Dash’ line and the Senkaku Islands has forced states to respond in kind. To many it may be viewed as the US asserting its hegemony in what should clearly be China’s region. However, China has failed to pick its fights well and has done more to unite the East-Asian states than anything the US could come up with. With President Trump we cannot be sure what US policy will continue to be. But Japan, and many other states in the region, has taken up the baton. We may very well see a more assertive collection of East Asian states on the horizon.