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[SEOUL] The US and China are squaring off over deployment of an anti-missile system in South Korea, the latest source of tension between the world's two biggest economies as they vie for influence in Asia.
The US is considering placing a Thaad ballistic missile defence system in South Korea to counter improved North Korean weapon technology. A group of lawmakers from the ruling Saenuri party has also begun lobbying for South Korea to purchase the Lockheed Martin Corp missile system directly. China fears the US could use Thaad to target its missiles and has called on South Korea to reject deployment.
"How can we fight with a knife when North Korea is brandishing a gun?" Won Yoo Chul, a lawmaker who heads the ruling party's policy-setting committee, said in a March 20 interview. "North Korea's nuclear and missile threat is advancing by the day and China's response over Thaad is excessive."
The Thaad issue has left South Korean President Park Geun Hye caught between the US, which maintains more than 28,000 troops in the country to defend against North Korea, and China, its biggest trading partner and ally in efforts to resolve historical and territorial disputes with Japan. Mounting evidence that the Kim Jong Un regime has developed the ability to launch nuclear-tipped missiles is adding urgency to the debate.
Deploying Thaad risks undermining bilateral relations with South Korea and the Park government should reject the system in the interest of "peace and stability of the whole region," China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Feb 5.
"The Thaad system will lead to the development of an advanced weapon to penetrate it, which would ruin the hard-won peace-making mood," Zheng Ji Yong, director of the Centre for Korean Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, said in an e-mail. "Where there's a shield there's alway a better spear forged."
US officials have played down China's concerns, saying Thaad, or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, is strictly defensive and isn't directed at China.
"I find it curious that a third country would presume to make strong representations about a security system that has not been put in place and that is still a matter of theory," US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel said on a visit to Seoul on March 17.
North Korea conducted a third nuclear test in 2013 and continues to improve the range and accuracy of missiles such as Rodongs in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.
The Kim regime is making progress in creating warheads small enough to launch on a missile and may have as many as 100 nuclear weapons in five years, according to Joel Wit, a former US State Department official now researching at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
Thaad is an offensive weapon that could be used to attack China and Russia, North Korea's official Central News Agency said in a March 19 commentary. North Korea can launch a nuclear- tipped missile "any time," the country's Ambassador to the UK Hyon Hak Bong told Sky News on March 20.
"Rodongs have a range of roughly 1,000 kilometers, which seems a little too much for threatening South Korea, but this would give them the option to attack South Korea's south coast from their northern border, far away from any South Korean airbases," Markus Schiller, a missile researcher at Schmucker Technologie in Germany, said by e-mail.
The US has already conducted studies on suitable sites for Thaad and the head of US forces in South Korea Curtis Scaparrotti recommended deployment last year.
"It is critical for the alliance to build a layered and interoperable BMD capability," Mr Scaparrotti said on March 18 in written testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defence. BMD refers to ballistic missile defence.
South Korean Defence Minister Han Min Koo said in October that having Thaad on a US base would be "helpful" in defending against North Korea. South Korea has not held talks with the US on Thaad, Ms Park's spokesman Chun Hye Ran said March 20 by phone.
Pressure on Park to buy Thaad is coming from within her own party. Saenuri Party's new floor leader Yoo Seong Min plans to summon lawmakers later this month to unite in lobbying for Thaad. In November, Mr Yoo said it was a "sin" the government wasn't considering buying Thaad.
"South Korea should tell China it will buy Thaad if North Korea conducts another nuclear test," Han Ki Ho, a Saenuri lawmaker and a member of the defense committee, said by phone. "South Korea should then demand China no longer meddle in the Thaad issue if North Korea launches another missile." PRICE TAG
Mr Yoo estimated the cost of a Thaad battery would range between 1 trillion won to 2 trillion won (S$1.23 billion to S$2.48 billion). Daniel Garcia, senior manager for international business development at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, declined comment on costs because Thaad involves government-to-government deals.
The threat may not justify the price tag, Mr Schiller said.
"Thaad is useful against Scuds and Rodongs," he said. "But spending billions of dollars against a threat that will most likely never become real is another question."