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US troops have been stationed in Asia since the second world war. For decades the world’s most dynamic economies – including South Korea and Japan – have grown rapidly under American protection and have become thriving democracies. But now, the American military presence, which has been so crucial to the region’s peace and stability, is in doubt.
Even today, the US acts as a guarantor of security to its allies. And as a deterrent to Kim Jong Un’s nuclear-armed North Korea and an increasingly powerful and assertive China under Xi Jinping.
Donald Trump, however, has shaken the American security umbrella in Asia to its core. The US president wants allies to pay more money for American military support and has even raised the possibility of pulling troops out if they don’t. He argues that for too long, too many countries have taken protection from the US for granted. This could mean the potential departure of 30,000 US troops from South Korea, more than 50,000 from Japan, and thousands more across Guam, Australia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
The question is, are these countries ready to defend themselves. It would be a daunting prospect given the rapid expansion of China’s military and Kim Jong Un’s fast-expanding arsenal of nuclear and chemical weapons.
The importance of having US troops forward in the region is that it’s not simply preventing states like China or like North Korea from taking aggressive moves against their neighbours. It’s also the reality that, unfortunately in Asia we have a lot of outstanding disputes between countries in the region. The prospect of a conflict breaking out – including among nuclear-armed nations – would be devastating to the United States economically.
So, is this just a shakedown by the US president to try and squeeze more money from America’s allies?
We have the greatest military equipment in the world and South Korea will be ordering billions of dollars of that equipment.
Trump’s record suggests that he might actually follow through on his threat. He has already reduced US troop numbers in parts of Europe and the Middle East. Having troops abroad is expensive and not always popular at home, but military experts argue that it is a better long-term option than trying to support allies from afar.
The military aspects of forward presence are somewhat incomparable. There is no greater benefit than causing what would otherwise be an away game to be a home game. Not to mention the ultimate military effect on exporting professionalism to the South Korean armed forces. I could go into more, people-to-people relationships, economic development and co-operation. All of these things. Scientific. We work with South Korea in space, that would not have been possible in 1950 if we had just come and left.
The governments in Seoul and Tokyo need to balance two competing pressures.
Remember North Korea? Remember they were going to be at war with North Korea? Where’s the war? Where’s the war?
On one side is the unpredictable and volatile US president.
On the other are local populations who want security but who don’t want to be treated like unruly tenants in their own countries.
What South Koreans want is to increase gradually our contribution to the alliance. And we don’t deny that there should be a reasonable burden sharing. But dramatic increase of financial contribution to the alliance does not sound really reasonable.
With the US election just days away, some in Washington are thinking about what Joe Biden might need to do to repair the damage to the US alliance system in Asia if he becomes president.
Were there to be a new administration, with spadework you can restore those alliances if you do the work. And I think equally important, you have to consider the alternative. As much as people may be frustrated about the United States and some of the warts and foibles that we bring to the way that we do business, the alternative is you have to work with China. And nobody relishes that future.
The prospect of a second Trump term as president, however, remains a real possibility. And other experts are hoping that at least somewhere in Washington, lessons have been learned after America’s rushed exits from conflicts like the Balkans and Iraq.
I believe both of those were untimely. And I think we’ve seen that. They’re completely understandable. From a political perspective, I completely get it. Once there’s a commitment of force and presence and prestige and blood and treasure, the return on investment is a long-term return on investment, not a short-term. And so I worry about short-term motivations.
For many Americans, a potential existential crisis hinges on the result of the November 3 election. The same might be true for hundreds of millions of people across Asia.