US soldiers rest after military exercises by US and South Korea troops at Daegu in March 2005.  Washington and Seoul have just signed a long-term military agreement, although a key aspect is still unclear. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-hwan
US soldiers rest after military exercises by US and South Korea troops at Daegu in March 2005. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-hwan

The United States has had troops in South Korea since the Korean War ended in 1953, but there has been no American military presence of note on Taiwan since 1979. It might be time to consider reversing that situation.

Policy differences between Seoul and Washington, plus Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea connect are other factors in this debate.

South Korea and the United States have often differed openly over how to deal with North Korea, calling into question the alliance between Seoul and Washington. And a greater American military presence in the South China Sea would help counter Chinese aggression in the region. Taiwan would be a better return on American military investment in East Asia than South Korea.

However, before any country gets involved in – or disengages from – any foreign situation, the primary question to be answered is whether that action would be in its own national interest, supporting or furthering its security or economic well-being.

To complicate matters, resources are finite and no country can be everywhere or do everything. Moreover, there are opportunity costs for every decision; every dollar spent on one foreign involvement means one less dollar for another.

Because the United States is an international trading nation, it is in Washington’s best interests to ensure that global sea lines of communication (SLOCs) remain free and accessible for everyone. US goods must be able to reach overseas customers and Americans have become dependent upon goods produced from all over the world.

Return on investment

American troops currently stationed in South Korea are not providing the greatest possible return on investment. In a recent article I argued that Seoul is quite capable of financing and developing its own defensive force. American troops are hardly necessary in light of South Korean superiority to North Korea in both economic and military terms.

Therefore, it is prudent for Washington to re-evaluate the strategic value of a sizeable American military presence on the Korean Peninsula. After all, it is extremely unlikely that the United States would invade the Asian mainland, and thus the need for a toe-hold on the continent that South Korea represents loses its importance.

Moreover, the United States has a considerable military presence in neighboring Japan, a country whose regional security issues are more closely aligned with those of America. Equally significant, Tokyo is more than willing to become a full-fledged nation with all the rights and privileges of regional defense that entails.

Japan is, thus, a better security partner in Northeast Asia than South Korea.

Court ruling ignored

When one considers that roughly one-third of the world’s trade passes through the Strait of Malacca from the Indian Ocean and then on to the South China Sea, free passage through those waters becomes a critical security interest of America. Given that, it behooves Washington to protect those waters from powers that do not observe international conventions and those that flout the rule of law – think China, for example.

In a case that drew international attention, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in 2016 that China had violated the Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial waters of the Philippines. Beijing almost immediately rejected the Court’s findings. But, it is clear that the Middle Kingdom has little regard for the rule of law or an international order that has served the world well.

Add to this the recent threats by China to take Taiwan by force, and it is logical that the United States would be better served in protecting its own interests – as well as those of its regional allies – by removing its military forces from the Korean Peninsula and stationing them instead on Taiwan.

Logical, practical

Moving American military assets to Taiwan would increase the radius of Washington’s projected power and political influence in East Asia as well as reassuring other allies in the South China Sea region that the United States is indeed a true partner in their defense as well.

When one considers that it was a lack of American support for Philippine claims in the South China Sea that led to Manila’s move to hedge its security bets by cozying up to Beijing, the need for action is all the clearer. While isolationists might claim that protecting sea lanes in the region is not an American problem, such a perspective is extremely myopic.

To be sure, safeguarding sea lanes in the South China Sea benefits the entire world, but it is equally apparent to those having a wider view that it is also in the best interests of the United States. Sea lanes are vital to American trade, no matter where they are.

By moving US forces from South Korea to Taiwan and continuing an American military presence in Japan, both the East China and South China Seas are covered. And that may even result in other nations in Southeast Asia aligning more willingly with the United States for a common goal in the South China Sea. That would truly benefit everyone.


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