U.S. President Donald Trump’s drive to win fair deals for the American people is timely and right. It is healthy for Washington to work with allies and make needed changes to agreements for purposes of meeting present day challenges. Yet, the President’s demand for five-fold increases in the amount Tokyo and Seoul pay for hosting American troops reflect a failure to understand and appreciate the strategic value of both alliances to U.S. national security interests.
If past is prologue, Mr Trump’s sharp price increase asks of Tokyo and Seoul are calculated opening bids in his efforts to negotiate better agreements with both states. In this context, many American taxpayers are grateful of the president’s focus on this front. Yet, in terms of the security challenges and changing dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, the desire for improved deals must not trump the U.S. strategic needs in the region.
A balance must be sought in making improvements to cost sharing arrangements with allies and addressing national security interests. Getting this balance right is vital amid the growing U.S.-China rivalry and the ongoing North Korea nuclear crisis.
The president has long believed that U.S. allies are free riders and that they should pay more for enjoying the security that the American military affords. According to reporting by Bloomberg in March of last year, the president is advocating a policy called “Cost Plus 50” that demands allies cover the entire cost of hosting American troops in addition to a 50 percent premium for the “privilege” of Washington’s protection. Countries like Japan, Germany and South Korea, which already host U.S. forces, would be expected to pay five to six times as much as they do now.
While the free rider charge may be true of some of Washington’s European allies -- 19 of NATO’s 29 member states have not lived up to the 2% GDP spending goal set at the 2014 Wales summit -- this is not true of Seoul which spends 2.6% GDP on defense. Beyond this, since 2015 South Korea has made $13 billion in American arms purchases and paid over 90% of the cost to upgrade U.S. Army Garrison-Humphreys, the largest American overseas military base.
Due to curbs imposed upon the scope of Tokyo’s military actions by the U.S.-Japan security treaty, Japan’s defense spending does not amount to as much of a percentage of its GDP as South Korea. However, U.S. and Japan government reports show that Tokyo offsets anywhere from 75% to 86% of the cost of hosting U.S. forces. Beyond this, Tokyo has covered $3 billion of the $8.7 billion defense upgrade in Guam, paid over 94% of the costs of retrofitting American facilities in Iwakuni and Futenma and increased purchases of American F-35 fighter jets and missile defense systems to help reduce the U.S. trade deficit.
From a simple arithmetic perspective, it can be argued that Washington has at times gotten the upper hand in its transactions with Tokyo and Seoul in recent years.
However, the president’s concerns about America’s defense relationships do not end with cost issues. He also thinks they lack reciprocity. According to accounts, Trump believes that Washington bears too much responsibility in these relationships given that the U.S. is required to come to the aid of allies in the event of an attack while they are not obliged to do the same for Washington.
Yet, this ignores the fact that Japan has moved in the direction of addressing Trump’s concerns. While one of the original objectives of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the U.S. was to take away the need for Japan to rearm, in recent years Tokyo, at the urging of Washington, has taken steps toward bolstering the role of the Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to help secure itself and the peace of the Indo-Pacific region.
Tokyo enacted legislation in 2015 that enables Japan to engage in collective self-defense and widen the scope of the SDF’s joint operations with the U.S. military. Additionally, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is currently pushing to revise the pacifist postwar Constitution to formalize the legal status of the SDF and put an end to the decades-old debate on their legality.
These bold moves by Tokyo in recent years show Japan’s commitment to the alliance, building on its role as an important contributor to the postwar order.
For its part, South Korea has been a rock solid America ally for over six decades, providing troops in every U.S. conflict since the Korean War in addition to lending its support in the War on Terror, anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and, most recently, sending a naval unit to support U.S.-led patrols in the Strait of Hormuz.
It bears mentioning that Washington’s security alliances with Tokyo and Seoul provide the U.S. with another advantage that arguably overrides in value the relationships’ perceived costs and burdens: the strategic geography of both allies. By hosting forward-deployed U.S. forces, Japan and South Korea contribute to the deterrence of regional states that are hostile to American interests, i.e., China, North Korea and Russia, and serve as a key launching point for operations on the Korean peninsula and in the broader Indo-Pacific.
President Trump deserves credit for bargaining hard on behalf of U.S. financial interests and this needed approach was often absent in past administrations’ negotiations with other states. Yet, it should not come at the expense of overriding security objectives or shared principles. Japan, South Korea and the U.S. are well served by their defense treaties which amount to more than commercial transactions. As with all relationships, these alliances need to be managed to address the needs of our time to ensure the security of a rapidly rising part of the world where Washington and its partners will continue to have interests for years to come.
Ted Gover, Ph.D. writes on foreign policy and is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.© Japan Today