Washington and Seoul have begun deploying Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Despite their explanation that the shield is aimed at Pyongyang, many analysts pointed out that they, especially the US, have ulterior motives. What are China's and Russia's main concerns about THAAD? In what ways can Beijing and Moscow jointly counter THAAD system? Global Times (GT) reporter Li Aixin talked to Alexander Gabuev (Gabuev), senior associate and the chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center, about these issues.
GT: What exactly does THAAD deployment mean for Russia?
Gabuev: For Russia, THAAD is a minor problem in narrow technical sense because it doesn't threaten the strategic balance between Russia and the US. The radar associated with THAAD can look beyond North Korea into the Russian territory, but it won't reach any sensitive areas for Russian nuclear development since major bases are located elsewhere in Siberia.
For China, the situation is different since the Northeastern part of the country has some of its strategic assets. Also, Russia has a far bigger nuclear arsenal than China, so the threats that THAAD poses itself are not that large.
Moscow's concern is that THAAD is viewed by the security and intelligence community as a critical part of the US global missile defense shield, which includes installations in Eastern Europe, Japan, Alaska, and now, South Korea. The Russian military analysts saw a pattern in the deployments, and the logical explanation is that Washington is trying to develop a missile defense system which will potentially make the US territory more invincible against potential Russian strikes, thus, ultimately affecting the strategic balance between the two nuclear superpowers.
GT: THAAD deployment in South Korea was a decision made during former US president Obama's term. Do you think the country's current president, Donald Trump, has the same attitude toward the arrangement as Obama?
Gabuev: The US position on this issue has been consistent, so it is highly unlikely that the Trump administration will change the course. Recent events have demonstrated that the US remains committed to the THAAD deployments. In light of recent North Korean tests and launches, as well as intelligence assessments that Pyongyang will be able to develop a missile that can hit Guam, Hawaii, and even US west coast, the administration can't sit on its hands. THAAD is a way to deter Pyongyang, but more importantly - to the South Koreans and Americans, it shows that the US government does have an active policy in place, that this policy is not toothless, and that America is able to protect its allies and citizens from a new threat.
At this point the immediate impact of the policy is more important for the politicians than a long-term assessment of actual risks associated with the THAAD deployment.
GT: According to media reports, Viktor Ozerov, chairman of the defense committee in the Russian upper house of parliament, said Russia could withdraw from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) because of the THAAD deployment, since it is in violation of the treaty. What is the significance of the treaty in the Russia-US ties?
Gabuev: The New START was a symbol of efficiency in US-Russia relations in its most critical global component in containing strategic balance between the two nuclear superpowers. As the holders of world's two largest nuclear arsenals, Russia and the US have a special global responsibility, and so far, are able to demonstrate a cold-blooded and responsible approach to this sensitive issue. After the break-down in US-Russia relations in 2014, following events in Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine, the New START treaty has remained the only functioning pillar of the bilateral relationship.
Unfortunately, it looks like the treaty's survival beyond 2021 is in question. Trump has said that this treaty favors Russia and is among those "bad deals" of the Obama era. Since Trump's administration is focused on beefing up the US military, including nuclear development, it might view the New START treaty as an obstacle.
At the same time, Russia was very reluctant to talk about deeper cuts. This was a problem even with Obama's administration before 2014. Facing growing asymmetry in conventional capabilities against the US, and looking at rapid modernization of nuclear forces around the world, most notably in China which is not part of any treaty, Moscow now wants to talk about further reductions only if other major nuclear powers participate.
GT: Will Russia really withdraw from the treaty?
Gabuev: It is highly unlikely that Russia will withdraw from the New START or will be threatening no renewal just because of THAAD deployment, but this issue can further complicate the discussions between Moscow and Washington.
Withdrawal from the New START treaty will not be beneficial for Russia. In the long run, the country doesn't have financial resources to engage in a costly arms race without undermining its macroeconomic stability. Despite recent show of strength in campaigns like the Syrian war, the Russian leadership knows that the country is no match in terms of conventional weapons against the US and its NATO allies, and the capabilities of other powers on Russia's Asia frontier are growing rapidly. The nuclear capabilities are the only efficient means to guarantee Russia's security in the long run, and thus, legal regimes that support parity with the most potent nuclear nations are of utmost importance to the Kremlin.
GT: Do you think Washington has evaluated or thought about possible counterattacks from China and Russia when deciding the THAAD deployment?
Gabuev: The US has underestimated China's concerns and was not ready to address them, intensifying Sino-American mistrust and military competition in East Asia and thus, producing a large long-term security problem for the US.
This short-term, immediate threat-focused analysis has become a pattern in decisions about deploying elements of the missile defense system - Russian concerns over the deployments in Eastern Europe were not properly addressed, thus, intensifying the level of mistrust between NATO and Russia. The tension over installations in Eastern Europe was not helpful during Ukraine crisis.
GT: What else can Russia do to cope with THAAD?
Gabuev: I would expect a lot of diplomatic activities with China, and shape the partnership to aim at US' plans to develop a global missile defense shield, not only THAAD. Another plan can be a purely military measure, like deployment of more Iskander (SS-26 Stone) short range missiles in the Russian Far East. This is the way Russia has responded in the Kaliningrad region to counter US missile defense installations in Europe.
GT: China and Russia have recently agreed to intensify their opposition to the THAAD deployment. In what ways do you think they can jointly counter THAAD in South Korea? Is building a SCO-based joint missile defense system a possibility?
Gabuev: I don't think a SCO-based joint missile defense system is feasible or possible. The major obstacle is a lack of trust between the SCO members. Since India and Pakistan are to join the organization as full members, creation of a joint missile defense system will be a no go for the block.
But even with states that are much closer to each other, there might be frictions. Take, for example, Russia's attempts to create a joint air-defense system have run into trouble, because Belarus didn't want to give Russia more operational control in this system. I don't think that creating joint missile defense system between Russia and China is possible either - that move would turn them into allies, which neither countries want to become, at least for now.
The more realistic option would be increased information sharing between Moscow and Beijing on THAAD and the US military presence in Northeast Asia, as well as joint exercises like the one held in May 2016.