As the United States takes the first steps to deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on the Korean Peninsula, China and Russia have continued their vociferous objections. The latest condemnation of THAAD from the Russian foreign ministry describes its installation in South Korea as the cause of a "stalemate." While focusing on security on the Korean peninsula, the statement still underscores the wider regional security situation in Northeast Asia.

Former South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s recent departure from power has raised questions about THAAD’s viability within the U.S.–South Korea alliance. The U.S. government allegedly sped up the process of bringing THAAD’s components to South Korea in anticipation of a shift in political power from the conservative Park to the liberal Moon Jae-in. Analysts speculate that, if Moon wins the upcoming elections, he will try to delay or may even cancel THAAD’s installation, while seeking greater rapprochement with China.

While the Russia factor is likely not as important as considerations of China in the THAAD calculus, the THAAD factor in Russia–South Korea relations is worthy of attention. Regardless of whatever occurs over the next several months, Russia’s position vis-à-vis THAAD reveals some important dynamics for Russia’s overall status in the Northeast Asia security environment.

Barry Buzan and Ole Wæver assert that the current security environment in Northeast Asia has deeper roots than the ideological dispute of the Cold War. Russia has reached across the old divisions of the Cold War, including developing ties with South Korea as well as making efforts at reconciliation with Japan.

Still, old divisions remain and are detrimental to regional security. THAAD has brought these divisions back to the forefront of northeast Asian security relations.

China is currently leading the opposition to the missile defense system. Shortly before the arrival of the first THAAD components in South Korea, officials from both North Korea and Russia approached Beijing to express their shared concerns and solidarity in condemning THAAD’s installation in Korea.

China has responded to THAAD with economic retaliation against South Korea. But Russia will likely find it difficult to pursue the same economic measures China has undertaken. Rather, Russian officials have tended to focus Moscow’s public response on the military sphere. This has ranged from announcing that THAAD will factor into Russia’s strategic planning, to declaring that Russia may have reason to leave the New START Treaty with the United States.

Russia’s concentration on primarily military rather than economic responses to THAAD gives several insights into its position in Northeast Asia. The professed basis of Russia’s security policy towards South Korea has been to promote peaceful dialogue over the country’s security issues. Increased defense posturing in response to Russian feelings of vulnerability is an understandable and logical response to regional developments. A more assertive Russian military response to THAAD, however, reveals the limits of Russia’s ability or willingness to rely primarily on diplomacy or other non-violent measures.

To avoid increased regional militarization, one potential Russian response to THAAD could be for Russia to utilize its supposed partnership with China to continue using economic measures to oppose THAAD. Yet this would assume that Chinese commercial measures against the ROK wouldn’t damage Russia’s own economic interests in South Korea. South Korean officials have continued meeting with Russian diplomats and regional governors to pursue closer ties.

Russia’s secondary position to China in condemning THAAD also marks yet another instance in which Russia could end up being a junior partner to China, a situation which Russian officials have been concerned about.

Moscow has also not directly condemned South Korea in the way that Beijing has. Shortly after Seoul made the final decision to approve THAAD’s deployment on the peninsula, the Russian Ambassador to Seoul, Alexander Timonin, praised South Korea as an important partner. Russia will likely have to balance between China and South Korea, and its willingness to pursue a policy toward South Korea that is less aligned with China will, in part, show the extent to which Russia wishes to be an independent actor and not an associate of China.

THAAD is a metric for how far Russia will pursue an independent policy course unbounded by old divisions, and for whether Northeast Asia will continue to be more-or-less divided between the China–Russia–North Korea and Japan–United States–South Korea camps. Chinese and Russian protestations against THAAD could reveal the limits of attempting to bridge the divisions of old. With China leading the opposition to THAAD, it could also signal China’s emergence as the de facto head of a bloc of northeast Asian states opposed to U.S. dominance in the security realm.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article from East Asia Forum. East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centered on the Asia Pacific region.

TNL Editor: Edward White