WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States hopes to talk with China and address its concern about the possible deployment of the THAAD missile defense system that Washington is discussing with Seoul, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.
Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, stressed that the United States and South Korea had just begun discussions, and no decision had been made to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
Gottemoeller also emphasized that the system was defensive in nature and aimed at North Korea, not China.
“THAAD is truly only capable of defending the territory on which it’s deployed. It is not capable of the kind of reach that the Chinese seem to be afraid that it has,” she told reporters at a breakfast meeting.
“We will be very glad and hope we’ll have the opportunity to sit down and talk with China about those very technical limitations and facts about the system,” she said.
Gottemoeller gave no timetable for a possible meeting.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, asked about the remarks, said THAAD was “certainly not a simple technology issue”.
“At present, the situation on the Korean peninsula is very complex and sensitive. We hope the relevant country cautiously handles this issue, and we demand they do nothing to harm China’s security interests,” she told a daily news briefing.
The United States and South Korea agreed to begin the talks last month after North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Feb. 7 carrying what it called a satellite.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Tuesday told a congressional hearing that Seoul and Washington had an “agreement in principle” to discuss deploying a THAAD system to South Korea. Doing so, he said, would protect “the entirety of the peninsula against North Korean missiles of greater range.”
Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, North Korea’s neighbor and main ally, last month underscored China’s concerns about a possible THAAD deployment but seemed to open the door to a diplomatic solution.
Wang said China understood the desire of the United States and South Korea to ensure the defense of their own countries, but Beijing had legitimate concerns that should be addressed.
U.S. military officials have long said the THAAD system is needed in South Korea, but until North Korea’s recent satellite launch, Seoul had been reluctant to openly discuss its deployment given the risk of damaging ties with China.
Army Lieutenant General David Mann, commander, U.S. Army Space & Missile Command, told reporters that the THAAD system would result in a “huge increase” in missile defense capabilities on the Korean peninsula. But he said Washington understood the sensitivity of the discussions given the concerns raised by China, one of South Korea’s key trading partners.
“It’s very, very important that we clarify that that radar, that system is not looking at China,” he said. “If the decision is made to deploy it, that system would be oriented on North Korea and threats posed by the North Korean military.”
The system was designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles inside or just outside the atmosphere during their final phase of flight.
Mann said the Army would complete training for its fifth THAAD system by the end of the year. He said Japan was also interested in the system, as were U.S. military commanders in Europe and the Middle East.
Once a site was approved and prepared, the mobile THAAD system could be deployed “in a matter of weeks,” Mann said.
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Bernard Orr