By Jillian Smith
Yesterday, I attended a talk featuring former defense secretary William Perry and retired People’s Liberation Army Major General Yao Yunzhu. The talk came on the tail end of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Beijing in his “tour of Asia.” Both speakers commented on the positive implications of the visit, but the true item of discussion was the oddly named missile defense system that seems to be throwing a wrench into US-China relations more so than anything else: THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). From General Yao’s comments, it was clear the missile defense system along South Korea’s border with its neighbor to the north have caused major anxiety for the Chinese government, but upon more research, I found that displeasure over THAAD has extended to ordinary Chinese citizens as well, in surprising ways.
The vexation over THAAD’s use seems to be felt across all levels, from Beijing’s political elites to the everyday Weibo user. While the Chinese government unsurprisingly has said that it is “resolutely against the deployment of THAAD by the U.S. and the ROK in the ROK, and will take firm and necessary steps to safeguard our security interests,” far less expected were the calls from ordinary citizens on social media for boycotts of Korean products such as department store Lotte’s koala-shaped animal crackers and even Korean T.V. drama heartthrobs. Why should a missile defense system have any impact on whether a young Chinese girl listens to K-Pop?
It has to do with the way the THAAD operates. As General Yao explained it, the defense unit uses something called an X-band AN/TPY-2 radar. The technology allows for the U.S. to electronically scan for ballistic threats across a wide range. In China’s view, this potentially means that the U.S. could have surveillance data on its own weapons operations, particularly its strategic second-strike nuclear capability, which the U.S. could then use to deliver counter measures. In plainer English, China feels that the U.S. and Korea will upset the delicate military defensive regime in the region, thereby posing a near-existential threat to the nation.
Since the 1990’s, the “Korean Wave,” a mass consumption of Korean popular culture, has been slowly influencing Chinese determinations of “cool.” Korean T.V. shows, music, barbecue and tourism have all had massive success in the Chinese market. With a growing nationalist sentiment among China’s young, however, no trend is too popular to be reversed, and young women are even promising to give up their ‘oppas’, an affectionate term for a favorite Korean TV star, as a show of patriotism.
While China’s boycotts on Korean consumer goods may or may not have an effect, the act clearly demonstrates that many Chinese citizens themselves feel threatened by a Korea too closely supported by the U.S. It also shows that even the influence of soft power in the form of popular culture may not be enough to assuage animosities. The tenuous peace that has long held in East Asia appears to be exposing its cracks. The diplomatic skill required to navigate such trends is significant.