As the US has moved closer to deploying its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, with the latter granting additional land, Beijing has threatened to impose economic sanctions on Seoul.
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It considers THAAD in the Korean peninsula a threat to Chinese security. In the process, however, China has exposed its double standard by not applying the same arguments against India, which protests the Chinese activities in Bhutan.
In fact, its position on India’s concerns over Bhutan is diametrically opposite to what it protests against American actions in South Korea. Beijing forgets that Bhutan is as important to India as North Korea is to China.
It may be noted that South Korea, which has a security treaty with the United States, decided to deploy the THAAD missile defense system in July 2016 in response to missile and nuclear threats of attack from North Korea (North Korea has experimented with the launch of more than 30 ballistic missiles and continues to expand the range of its nuclear-capable short-range missiles; it is believed to be preparing for carrying out its seventh experimental nuclear detonation, the first since 2017).
The THAAD system is designed to intercept ballistic missiles; it does not carry warheads but destroys attack missiles on impact. As the US State Department spokesman Vedanta Patel said last week, the THAAD system is “a limited and discreet self-defense system designed to counter North Korea’s ballistic rocket attack program.”
Patel asserted that the United States and South Korea “(were pursuing) a purely defensive approach to protect South Korea and its population from any military attack and to protect the forces of their military alliance of weapons of mass destruction.”
In other words, The THAAD system in South Korea is meant to deal with the North Korean missile threats.
But China is saying that THAAD could be used to spy on Chinese military facilities. So much so that it protested against Seoul’s decision of 2016 and imposed commercial and cultural sanctions on South Korea.
It banned some South Korean products, increased inspections to impede trade, restricted tourism, limited distribution of South Korean movies, and encouraged domestic boycotts of South Korean goods.
Trade and cultural exchanges only resumed when South Korea’s former President Moon Jae-in committed to a “three noes” policy in 2017 – no additional deployment of THAAD, no South Korean integration into a US-led regional missile defense system, and no trilateral alliance with the US and Japan.
Change In Policy
However, Moon’s successor Yoon Suk Yeol, who was elected President recently, has said he would not abide by the “three noes” and that the policy was not a commitment to China or a formal agreement with China but a statement of Moon’s political position.
The Presidential Blue House in Seoul has issued a statement declaring, “Our government clearly states that THAAD is a self-defensive tool aimed at protecting our people’s lives and safety from North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and is a matter of security sovereignty that can never be subject to negotiation.”
Accordingly, Seoul has now granted an additional 400,000 square meters (98 acres) of land to Washington to “normalize operations” of the THAAD system. The land in the agricultural county of Seongju brings the total set aside for the THAAD systems to 730,000 square meters (180 acres). It, of course, includes the 330,000 square meters (82 acres) granted five years ago.
Viewed logically, China has no case on the issue, which, strictly speaking, is a bilateral matter between two sovereign countries – South Korea and the United States – that are bound together under a security treaty.
THAAD is a defensive measure against North Korea, not China. But China, going by the Chinese media and experts, is worried as it apprehends that THAAD in South Korea could weaken its second strike capability and destroy strategic stability between China and the United States.
It is argued by the Chinese that THAAD’s technological capabilities, primarily the X-ray AN/TPY-2 radar system it employs, which, if directed at China, would provide a surveillance system for missiles launched within a radius of 1,500 to 2,000 kilometers.
This will speed up the forecasting time of the US National Missile Defense System (NMD) and significantly increase the missile intercept rate.
India, China Tensions
At the same time, China does not apply these points when India protests over what it is doing in Bhutan. All told, Chinese incursions /advances/infrastructure developments in Bhutan, particularly in the Chumbi valley, affect the security concerns of India in a substantial manner.
India’s narrow Siliguri corridor lies immediately South of Chumbi valley. This explains why in June 2017, when the Chinese started making the roads in Bhutan’s Doklam area to strengthen its military infrastructures bordering India, New Delhi was forced to checkmate the construction by mobilizing its troops.
Though nearly after three months of stalemate, both the countries decided to withdraw their troops, the Chinese have been reportedly making some regular efforts to extend the road; but the situation has been kept under control.
China claims many areas (a total of 764 kilometers) of Bhutan as its own territory. Incidentally, the two do not even have diplomatic relations.
India has been asked by China as to what rights it has to question Beijing’s activities in Bhutan, “a universally recognized sovereign country.” However, China knows the answer to this question very well, given its own stance in the Korean peninsula under similar circumstances.
Is South Korea not a sovereign country for China? After all, what the United States is doing in South Korea should not bother Beijing. As pointed out, THAAD in South Korea does not pose a direct threat to China; it is an anti-ballistic missile system designed to destroy intermediate-range ballistic missiles originating from North Korea, not China.
But then, the reality is that China considers stability in the Korean peninsula to be extremely important for its own security, and any imbalance there (in favor of the US-South Korea alliance) will change the regional dynamics.
And here, there are some merits to China’s apprehensions, provided it recognizes India’s similar concerns regarding the stability in Bhutan.
After all, Chumbi Valley is only 500 kilometers from the Siliguri corridor – the chicken neck which connects India to North East India and Nepal to Bhutan. It has enormous strategic importance for India in the sense that dominance here by China will adversely affect the stability in the Siliguri corridor, vital not only for the linkage between the Indian mainland and the north-eastern states but also to ensure security for Kolkata and the north Bihar plains.
And this is all the more important after China opened a railway network in August 2014 connecting Lhasa with Shigatse, a small town near the Indian border in Sikkim. China now wants to extend this line up to Yadong, situated at the mouth of the Chumbi valley. And once this is done, potential threats to the Siliguri corridor from China will take a menacing proportion.
It is obvious, therefore, for India to be concerned about Chinese incursions into the Bhutanese territory the same way China is worried about the deployment of THAAD in South Korea.
Even otherwise, India-Bhutan relations are guided by the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, signed in 1949 and renewed in 2007. Bhutan and India are supposed to consult each other closely on foreign affairs and defense matters.
The Indian Army has always been present in Bhutan and is posted on many China-Bhutan border posts. The Indian Army maintains a training mission in Bhutan, known as the Indian Military Training Team (IMTRAT), not to speak of the exemplary work done in that country by the Border Roads Organisation, a subdivision of the Indian Army Corps of Engineers.
Besides, the Royal Bhutan Army relies on the Eastern Command of the Indian Air Force for air support during emergencies. Above all, in 1958, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared in the Indian Parliament that any aggression against Bhutan would be seen as aggression against India.
Therefore, Bhutan is just not an ordinary country for India. It is as important to India as North Korea is to China.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. CONTACT: [email protected]
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