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Tables are about to suffer significant thumping in London: US President Donald Trump has made crystal clear his determination to wring more money out of European allies at the NATO summit, which kicks off today in the British capital.
He has a point. The state of many European militaries is pathetic, their defense spending paltry. Result? Over-reliance on US troops and assets.
Trump is expected to reiterate his July demand that NATO nations designate at least 2% of their budgets for defense. But Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, expects that only eight of NATO’s 29 members (including the US) will have reached that mark by the end of this year.
While this scenario plays out in London, a broader perspective suggests that the threat that US allies face in the Atlantic is weaker and more single-dimensional than the pressures mounting against US allies in the Pacific.
In Europe, NATO faces Russia – a nation with a powerful, nuclear-armed military, but a second-tier economy. In Northeast Asia – home to the world’s leading manufacturing powerhouses, and (alongside the EU and NAFTA) one of the globe’s top three zones of economic activity – the threat is sterner and more multi-dimensional.
US allies Japan and South Korea are not part of a 29-member multilateral alliance. Instead, they are bound by separate, bi-laterals with the Americans. In their region, they face off against not just Asiatic Russia, but also the risk-tolerant and nuclear-armed state of North Korea – and, most imposingly, the fast-rising, highly ambitious economic and military power that is China.
Against the backdrop of this multi-headed threat, Trump is demanding big bucks for American bang.
It is not as if Japan and South Korea were not already big spenders. According to World Bank data, in 2018 Japan, the world’s number three economic power, spent 0.9% of its budget on defence, while Korea, the world’s 11th largest economy, spent 2.6%.
Japan plans to spend $50.3 billion in 2020 on defense, a 1.2% rise from the current year. South Korea is investing even more, proportionally: Seoul seeks a 7.4% increase next year, worth $41.29 billion.
But Trump’s big ask is not procurement – it is payment for the costs of US troops based in the two countries.
Reportedly, in a series of talks that are ongoing, Trump is seeking to raise Japan’s contribution from $1.7 billion to $8 billion, and to lift Korea’s contribution from 2019’s $893 million to $4.7 billion. According to online media organization The Conversation, the costs of US bases in Japan and Korea to the US tax payer, are, respectively, $5.7 and $4.5 billion.
In other words, Washington is demanding the allies pay more for US bases than those bases cost the US. Even if the US price is haggled down during negotiations, the basic calculation suggests a belief that the bases, and their related alliances, are worthless to the United States.
That, in turn, raises a major question. Does Trump – perhaps the most trade-focused US president of recent memory – understand big-power politics and its core component, strategy?
Japan, Korea matter
A basic principle of strategy is forward defense: It is better – assuming one has solid logistics – to fight as far as possible from one’s own borders. Washington has customarily understood this, as proven by one of the standout events in US history.
In the world’s bloodiest-ever war, the first blow against American troops was struck 3,758 miles from the US western seaboard – at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. Throughout the conflict, US forward deployment provided a shield for the mainland US, the value of which cannot be calculated. While Europe and Asia were being laid waste by ground battles, scorched-earth retreats and carpet bombings, the continental United States remained virtually sacrosanct.
US Pacific defense is even better echeloned today. The forward line – incorporating ground, air, naval and missile-defense assets – has been driven 4,662 miles farther westward of Hawaii. This provides true “defense in depth.”
US troops in Korea provide America’s front line on the Asian mainland itself. The second line is Japan – then Guam, then Hawaii and finally, the mainland USA. If any of these lines were abandoned, Washington would lose early warning time, air-sea maneuver room and the ability to employ in situ defensive assets and units.
Moreover, US footholds in Japan and Korea are not purely defensive. They also function as forward operating bases, providing jumping off points for monitoring – and in the event of future conflict, interdiction and engagement – operations in the region.
Strategy is wedded to geography. South Korea, its Jeju Island and Japan’s Okinawa are ideal locations to cover entry to and egress from China’s eastern seaboard. Northern Japan is well placed to monitor Russian air and sea movements around Vladivostok. And South Korea borders North Korea.
In the 21st century, some believe assets such as carrier battle groups and satellite reconnaissance obviate on-ground presences. This is simplistic.
Naval forces need bases, and Camp Humphreys – the vast, South Korea-funded US base south of Seoul – offers more acreage than the deck space of every US carrier in the fleet, combined. Satellite reconnaissance does not obviate spy planes, electronic eavesdropping and debriefs of human intelligence.
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However just because the US troop presence in Japan and South Korea is valuable to the US, does not mean it lacks value for Japan and South Korea.
US troop presences deter enemies and massively ameliorate hosts’ defense costs. American soldiers offer training and mentoring to local forces, and provide local employment on and around bases.
There are also indirect benefits. US boots on the ground underwrite host nations’ sovereign credit ratings and foreign investment. And in the past, GIs disseminated US culture – fashion, music, sport – to Koreans and Japanese.
So, it is a two-way, doubly beneficial street – assuming, of course, that one concurs with Pax Americana. Many in Japan and South Korea would – for besides obvious ideological reasons, a superpower over the horizon is preferable to one in the back yard.
As China continues its rise over Asia-Pacific, a regional struggle is raging over systems of political and economic governance and influence.
Today’s power structures are not single-dimensional. There is soft power – the power of attraction. There is sharp power – the power of influence and manipulation. But given the realities of strategic competition, old-fashioned hard power – the power of coercion –cannot be written off. And the rawest form of hard power remains military force.
In 2018, the US Department of Defense defined the key issues in US national security strategy as: defend the homeland; remain the pre-eminent military power on earth; ensure that balances of power in key regions remain in US favor; and advance an international order that is most conducive to US security and prosperity.
If Trump accepts this assessment – above all, if he wants the US to remain dominant and defensible – then Asian alliances and related deployments remain essential and valuable.