By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Sept. 28 (Yonhap) -- The United States did to foresee China's retaliation against South Korea when its Asian ally decided to house the U.S. THAAD missile defense system, which has been a driver for a change in the U.S. strategy toward China and the Indo-Pacific region, a U.S. defense official said Monday.
Chad Sbragia, deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, insisted China's actions also serve as a driver for U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region to form a network.
"This is one that still resonates very powerfully in the (defense) department and certainly in the (Donald Trump) administration. I can say that I am not sure that anybody foresaw what they should have foreseen, which was Chinese actions at that time," Sbragia said when asked about reasons for Washington's failure to assist Seoul against China's economic warfare.
South Korea faced serious economic retaliation from China in 2017 when it decided to deploy the U.S. missile defense system, in the wake of escalating tension and provocations from North Korea.
North Korea conducted its last and most powerful nuclear test in September of that year, followed by a series of launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
Sbragia said he could not talk specifically about actions taken to reverse the economic measures taken by China, but noted it served as a reason for the U.S. to "improve and build closer relations with Indo-Pacific partners."
It has also been a "powerful driver" to change how the U.S. deals with China, he said.
"It's not lost on me that the example, particularly from the THAAD issue and the resulting reaction from the Chinese...is that that was a very powerful driver for both the revision of the current Trump administration's national security strategy and national defense strategy," he told a webinar hosted by the U.S.-based Institute for Corean-American Studies.
The U.S. defense official insisted the incident must also serve as a driver for a networked, multilateral alliance in the region.
"I do think it's going to require that we promote a more networked region," he said.
His remark comes at a time when the U.S. is increasingly pushing for what is known as the Quad Plus, a NATO-like multilateral structure that currently involves four countries -- Australia, India, Japan and the United States -- that are known as the Quad.
"I do know that the Chinese do react. I do know that they tend to be more strategically sensitive when we do those things together," Sbragia told the virtual seminar. "So in perhaps a counterintuitive way that the more you stand together the less effect you have from the Chinese."
The defense official also reiterated the U.S.' call for China to come to a three-way negotiating table that will also involve Russia on limiting their intermediate-range missile development.
The U.S. believes China currently possesses thousands of intermediate-range missiles, along with some 200 nuclear warheads, according to an earlier report published by the Defense Department.
Shortly after the U.S. withdrew from the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed by the former Soviet Union, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in August 2019 said he would like to deploy ground-based intermediate-range missiles in Asia.
When asked whether such a move may lead to an arms race in the region, Sbragia said China has been building up its capabilities for decades.
"Actually the arms race has been going on now for several decades. That's an arms race the Chinese had an unique and exclusive advantage to as they recognized asymmetric advantage," he said, noting China has never been a part of the INF.
"This is not an arms race the United States is starting. In fact, we have self-limited through the INF treaty with the Russians to prevent just such a thing. Ideally, what you will see is the Chinese will start talking to us about arms control at large," added Sbragia.
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