Cost-sharing deal needed quickly, says Austin
U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, said Wednesday he would bring about an early resolution to stalled military cost-sharing negotiations with South Korea.
In a written statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin described the U.S. military alliance with Seoul as the “linchpin of peace and security in the region” and “among the most combined, interoperable, capable and dynamic” alliances in the world.
If confirmed, the retired four-star general said he would focus on modernizing the alliance along with others throughout the Indo-Pacific region and “seek the early conclusion of cost-sharing negotiations with South Korea as part of those efforts.”
The Biden administration’s approach to a new Special Measures Agreement (SMA) may allow Seoul a sigh of relief after over a year of wrangling with the Donald Trump administration over its contribution to the upkeep of some 28,500 American troops on Korean soil.
Driven by Trump’s repeated claims that South Korea was failing to pay its fair share, the outgoing administration initially demanded a fivefold increase in Seoul’s contribution, before taking a step back last summer to ask for a 50 percent increase over last year — around $1.3 billion.
South Korea maintained that a 13 percent increase from the previous year was its best offer. In the 10th SMA signed in February 2019, Seoul agreed to pay around 1.04 trillion won ($871 million), around 8.2 percent more than what it spent the previous year.
Biden has fiercely criticized Trump for his dressing down of U.S. allies for not contributing enough to their defense — actions that have strained relations with NATO members as well as Seoul and Tokyo.
In an editorial contribution to Yonhap News Agency last October, Biden vowed to strengthen the alliance with South Korea, “rather than extort Seoul with reckless threats to remove our troops.”
Antony J. Blinken, the nominee for secretary of state, said in July before Biden’s election that a new administration would review all of Trump’s foreign policy decisions, including the decision to cut the number of U.S. troops in Germany as a result of Berlin’s refusal to — as Trump put it — “pay their bills.”
Under Biden, Washington is expected to return to a more traditional security approach to global security policy, strengthening relationships with key allies to counter challenges posed by adversaries like China and Russia.
Perhaps the most important foreign policy issue for both the outgoing and incoming administrations is the need to check Beijing’s regional ambitions.
To allow greater flexibility in responding to such a threat, Trump’s defense strategists envisioned implementing rotational deployments of U.S. troops into global theaters, as opposed to permanent stationing. Remarks made to such effect by former Defense Secretary Mark Esper raised concerns in Seoul that Washington could reduce the U.S. troop presence in Korea.
Such a possibility remains under Biden. In his response to the Senate, Austin said there was “no question” that a “more resilient and distributed force posture in the Indo-Pacific” was needed to respond to China, before vowing to review the current U.S. presence in the area.
Another concern for Seoul is the fate of its plan to retrieve wartime operational control (Opcon) from the United States as per a transition plan signed by the two allies in 2015.
South Korea’s Moon Jae-in administration has been pining to complete Opcon transfer — which would put allied forces under the command of a South Korean general in wartime — by the end of Moon’s term next year, though delays in the assessment process due to Covid-19 have made meeting such a timetable increasingly tenuous.
Disagreements on Opcon schedule also flared up in a major bilateral security meeting in October last year, augmenting suspicions in Seoul that Washington’s worries about China have led to reconsideration of the plan.
It remains to be seen how the Biden administration will approach the matter. Austin told the Senate he would review the status of the Opcon transfer — including the 2015 plan — without making specific promises.
BY SHIM KYU-SEOK [firstname.lastname@example.org]