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Can MIKTA Help South Korea Against China’s THAAD Boycotts?

Beijing has recently criticised South Korea for its implementation of the THAAD missile defence system. Can MIKTA, a grouping of regional middle powers, use its leverage to defend a member of its own coalition against the political pressures of the world’s largest economy?

South Korea has faced a further increase in economic and political pressure from China over the last two weeks after multinational company Lotte provided land it owned to house the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system.

Beijing sees the THAAD system as a threat for several reasons. In addition to seeing the deployment as a way to increase the US presence on the peninsula, Beijing claims that THAAD has the ability to track and shoot down Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It sees this as a significant threat to its own capacity for nuclear deterrence.

However, these arguments are not watertight: THAAD does not have the range to shoot down Chinese ICBMs and the US likely already possesses the aforementioned tracking capability via established radar relays.

Nevertheless, it has spurred the Chinese government to encourage a boycott on all Lotte products and shops. In addition to this, Chinese officials have ordered tourists to cease travelling to South Korea and have stopped the broadcast of popular Korean music and television shows in China.

And it’s working. The protest against the implementation of the THAAD system is already jeopardising tourism to South Korea—Chinese tourists make up nearly half of all foreign visitors. A Chinese analyst, Piao Ren Jin, has claimed the boycott could reduce the size of South Korea’s economy by as much as 0.25 per cent.

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang has stated that a resolution could only be achieved through all relevant parties thinking outside of the box. “China welcomes even better suggestions from the relevant parties on how to tackle the present difficulties on the peninsula,” said Shuang.

The US is unlikely to apply pressure to China over the matter. The Trump administration’s isolationist rhetoric means that it is unlikely that the US will intervene in the matter even though they should. China is playing power politics by testing the resolve of the US to act as a leader in the Asia-Pacific. If the US refuses to apply pressure to China in response, it may weaken the US position in the region.

How does MIKTA fit into this?

If Geng Shuang is to be believed, this could provide an opportunity for MIKTA to play a part in “thinking outside the box”.

For the uninitiated, MIKTA is a coalition of Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia. It was formed in 2013 as a response to the BRICS grouping (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the G7. The middle powers that now comprise MIKTA came together in order to serve and protect their individual interests in the global arena.

Can MIKTA help South Korea?

In economic terms, MIKTA carries considerable weight. The combined GDP of the five member nations is US$5.8 trillion (AU$7.55 trillion), which would rank between the US and Japan at third in the world. In theory, MIKTA members may be able to apply significant political pressure to China based on their economic strength.

One possibility is that at this year’s G20 summit in July, MIKTA can act together as a bloc to pressure China to cease the boycott. While MIKTA’s combined economic power does not measure up to that of BRICS or the G7, it may be significant enough to make China rethink its strategy.

There is also an argument that MIKTA could and should expand to include Saudi Arabia or Argentina. For this particular issue, including Saudi Arabia would be of particular benefit due to the amount of oil that China imports from Saudi Arabia every year. Were Saudi Arabia to become part of MIKTA, then it would be significantly bolstered and would be well placed to persuade China to move away from its current course of action.

Barring the expansion of the group, MIKTA’s best course of action will be to use its leverage as a grouping of important regional middle powers to convince China that the United States’ South Korean-based THAAD missile system does not pose a threat, but is directed only at North Korea. While there are elements of a security dilemma at play here, China has responded unreasonably to the situation and is likely to harm South Korea significantly.

Evan Keeble is an intern with the national office of the Australia Institute of International Affairs. He is studying for a master of strategic studies at the Australian National University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.

Published March 20, 2017