The Cable

Angry Over U.S. Missile Defense, China Lashes Out at South Korean Companies

China's response targets shopping stores and tourist travel. So far.

SK

Beijing is already responding to the first deployment of U.S. missile defenses to South Korea, apparently hoping to use economic and commercial pressure on a key U.S. ally to reverse what it sees as a threatening military move in its neighborhood.

On Tuesday, hours after the first pieces of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system arrived in South Korea, the Chinese foreign ministry warned Washington not to fully deploy the defensive kit, which will be operational by the end of the year.

China “will take firm and necessary steps to safeguard our security interests,” said ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang. “All the consequences entailed shall be borne by the US and the ROK. We once again strongly urge the relevant parties to stop the deployment process, instead of traveling further down the wrong path.”

For now, South Korean companies are bearing the consequences. CNN Money reported 23 of South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group’s stores in China had closed. Lotte Group agreed to turn over a golf course to the South Korean government to house the THAAD system days earlier.

China also apparently rejected applications from airlines to charter flights between the two countries, and the Chinese government told travel agencies not to sell trips to South Korea, according to South Korea’s state-run tourism agency. (Reprisals against corporate interests are old hat in China: When bilateral relations with Japan and Vietnam have soured, Beijing has often channeled public ire against Japanese and Vietnamese businesses.)

China had hinted at such reprisals. South Korean foreign ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck explained last Thursday that the system was for defensive purposes only, after hearing of calls in China to disadvantage South Korean companies.

South Korea is reportedly considering filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization against China for trade retaliation. The Chinese foreign ministry said Tuesday that foreign companies that follow the law are welcome.

It is still to be seen whether, or how, China will seek to punish the United States, which is sending the system to South Korea. But with Washington stepping up its naval presence in the contested waters of the South China Sea, and the Trump administration pushing a hard-line approach to Beijing, tensions will likely only increase.

Photo credit: United States Forces Korea via Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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