PacNet #11 – Two tasks for making US-ROK troop burden sharing sustainable

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Why have US-South Korean negotiations over a new military cost-sharing deal been so contentious? Yes, the size of the US “ask” is significantly larger than in the past. But negotiations also have been complicated by the fact that South Korea is nearing a legislative election on April 15. The latest meeting between US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper and South Korean Minister of Defense Jeong Kyeong-doo at the Pentagon on February 24 failed to yield a breakthrough.

The US position is that the cost of common defense cannot fall disproportionately to US taxpayers. Yet without taking into account the political necessity of persuading the Korean citizenry that any increase is reasonable and justifiable, a hefty increase in South Korea’s contribution risks fraying this crucial alliance.

The Trump administration is aggressively negotiating a new framework for the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) that governs how the two countries split costs for maintaining 28,500 US soldiers based on the Korean peninsula. Demanding that allies make higher contributions for mutual defense costs has been a priority for the US president since the 2016 campaign trail.

The US “ask” reportedly began at nearly $5 billion annually, a five-fold increase from South Korea’s current contribution of KRW 1.039 trillion ($875 million), a request that shocked both the Korean negotiators and the Korean public. The US seeks to broaden the scope of the agreement to include funds for rotational troops and other military assets—which is far more expansive than the current framework. Enhanced transparency is especially important with an upcoming election so the Korean public can better understand the U.S. position.

Negotiations are now in overtime. The 10th and most recent SMA expired December 31 and the two countries face their seventh round of negotiations with a wide gap remaining. The US has stated that it will start furloughing thousands of Korean workers paid under the SMA if a new agreement is not reached. Never before has the US gone that far.

Often overlooked in discussions about these difficult talks is the need for broad South Korean political buy-in. Notably, a new SMA does not require US congressional approval, but it does require ratification by the democratically elected South Korean National Assembly, the members of which are highly attuned to public sentiment.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in is not up for re-election in April (presidents are limited to a single five-year term), but all 300 National Assembly seats are in play.

If the Trump administration wants a deal it faces two tasks. One is political, to win over both South Korean public sentiment and the National Assembly. For that to happen, greater transparency in the American ask is necessary, and greater emphasis in explaining its logic to the South Korean electorate.

The stakes are high. The South Korean press has provided blanket coverage of the SMA negotiations and the US demands. As a result, anti-American protesters have staged rallies and one group even broke into the grounds of the ambassador’s residence.

Recent polls have revealed some incipient fissures in South Korean public opinion. In early December, a Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll found an overwhelming majority (92%) of the Korean public supports the US alliance and three-quarters (74%) support the long-term stationing of American soldiers in South Korea. The poll also revealed that “a clear majority (68%) believe South Korea should negotiate a lower cost than America’s new proposal, but most are willing to pay more than the current amount. One-quarter (26%), however, said South Korea should refuse to pay. If the two countries fail to reach a deal, a majority would be willing to see US forces in South Korea reduced, a potentially dangerous development that would be welcomed by China and North Korea.

South Korea can afford to pay more, and it should: more strategic assets are now required to defend South Korea and the East Asia region from North Korea’s increasingly potent missile and nuclear threats. As a share of GDP, Korea pays more than Japan and Germany for its own defense, but a higher price tag for the US military presence may be justified based on these changing conditions.  The task yet to be taken up by US negotiators is to clearly explain the new formula.

The second task is strategic. The Trump administration should agree to allow the SMA to once again become a multiyear agreement and not continue the process of annual renewals that it instituted last year. This would minimize disruption—and tension—in this important alliance. Former US Forces Korea Commander Vincent Brooks has gone on record arguing that one-year renewals cause “structural instability” and should be replaced by three-to-five year deals.

The US-ROK alliance has successfully deterred aggression from North Korea as well as China for nearly seven decades. It has led to a flourishing of economic and cultural exchanges that has significantly benefited both countries. Failure to find common ground is counterproductive to a shared deterrence posture and faith that the US and its ally will credibly deter in crisis. That, in turn, has broader ramifications.

The time is now for the United States and South Korea to come to terms on a deal that works for both sides. The smooth functioning of the alliance should not be impaired by an accounting impasse that loses sight of the incalculable benefits from 70 years of partnership.

Kathleen Stephens (president@keia.org) is the chair of the New York City-based Korea Society, the president of the Korea Economic Institute and a former ambassador to South Korea from 2008 to 2011.

Thomas Byrne (president@koreasociety.org) is the president of the Korea Society and was the Asia-Pacific regional manager for Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #8 – Who cares if the US is in a “New Cold War” with China?

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Enough already. It is time to stop debating whether the United States stands at the threshold of a “new Cold War” with China. The question has become an obsession among China watchers and foreign policy analysts. But the debate’s poorly defined nature sheds little light on the excruciating choices policymakers face when dealing with Beijing.

Let’s start by examining why the controversy amounts to geopolitical empty calories—energizing but lacking in the substance needed to prescribe policy.

Those who reject the new Cold War framework essentially make the argument that Case A is not Case B. It is literally not the 20th century, China is literally not the Soviet Union. They rightly contend that the world has changed in countless ways since the original Cold War. But the argument falls apart by setting a standard that cannot be met without a time machine. If “Cold War” is a category of one—the twilight struggle between Washington and Moscow in the latter half of the last century—then proclaiming that today’s matchup does not fit into the framework tells us very little about the current state of US-China relations.

Conversely, the proponents of the new Cold War concept tend to make the definition too loose. For them, the contest is a new Cold War because the challenge a muscular China poses goes beyond the tin pot dictators and transnational problems that have occupied American strategists since the Berlin Wall fell. (In fairness, some in this school prefer the term “great power competition” because it is more general.) But the simple fact of big countries competing for influence should not lead policymakers toward an unthinking reversion to the strategies of yesteryear.

Adopting a new Cold War framework might be useful in one critical way: In a democracy, leaders need to explain national security decisions to the public in understandable terms. And Americans commonly understand that a “cold war” means a competition among powerful countries that encompasses the political, technological, military, and values spheres. It is therefore useful, albeit loaded, shorthand, although only when paired with appropriate caveats about what is new this time around.

Paradoxically, despite their differing assessments about the nature of the problem, the two schools largely agree on the major elements for how Washington should deal with Beijing: strengthen US alliances, maintain an effective military deterrent, uphold democratic values, foster domestic renewal, and seek out pragmatic cooperation with China. When it comes to implementing those broad strokes, however, a number of difficult questions arise. How US policymakers answer such questions will shape Sino-American relations much more than generalized observations on Cold Wars or lack thereof.

Here are just a few of those questions.

When it comes to economics and trade, does interdependence make the two countries less likely to fight? Or would some degree of separation between them actually be stabilizing? To the extent that trade helps China grow its economy and fund its military, is there a point where US policy should move beyond trying to control particular technologies and seek to restrain China’s economy generally? Which regional and global trade agreements should Washington pursue in order to shape the terms of international trade?

On technology, can America sustain its advantages through radical openness? Or is it more important to shield US centers of innovation from an onslaught of theft and espionage? Should Washington resurrect some form of industrial policy to cultivate innovation, and if so, what would it look like?

For the military, where should Washington draw a forward defensive line in Asia, if at all, and what costs are Americans willing to bear to uphold it? Should the line stay fixed indefinitely, or be redrawn periodically to accommodate Beijing’s growing power? Would Chinese leaders be reassured or emboldened by any accommodative moves? For example, if Washington allows Beijing to seize Taiwan, will China be satiated, or would it just pick a new target for conquest?

Even if America and China are not locked in a global ideological contest—itself a matter of some debate—Beijing still perceives intense ideological pressure from Washington. Will China feel more room to liberalize with less day-to-day foreign prodding, or will it only open up politically if democracies exert consistent, firm stance on values? How should Washington support human rights in China and counter Beijing’s authoritarian example without convincing Chinese leaders that the United States is an implacable adversary? Or, more provocatively, are expanding freedoms always going to be a mirage under the Communist Party?

Washington and Moscow grudgingly found ways to cooperate during the Cold War, so working together should always be possible. But where, exactly, can the United States cooperate with China today? The list seems to shrink constantly, even as the need for effective transnational cooperation grows. Does it make sense for Washington to accept concessions on some issues in order to garner Beijing’s help on others? Should America try to link different issues together or compartmentalize them? Will China be amenable to either approach?

Crafting responses to these vexing dilemmas will determine where the proverbial rubber hits the road on US-China relations. Notably, most of those tradeoffs are just as agonizing whether or not one believes Washington and Beijing are locked in a new Cold War—which should tell us something about the value of that discussion overall. Let’s put the whole debate to bed and get down to discussing the harder but more consequential tradeoffs that will shape US-China relations in the decades to come.

Jacob Stokes is a senior policy analyst in the China program at the United States Institute of Peace. He previously served on the national security staff for Vice President Joe Biden and as a professional staff member for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He can be reached at jstokes@usip.org.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

YL Blog #19 – GSOMIA vs. TISA: What is the Big Deal?

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Introduction

South Korea’s announcement to end the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan on August 22 marks the lowest of bilateral relations. Following the decision, Japan’s removal of South Korea (Republic of Korea, or ROK) from its whitelist of preferred trading partners took effect on August 28, for the first time since 2004. ROK also officially ousted Japan from its whitelist on September 18, signaling unyielding bilateral tensions.

While the United States (U.S.) has been encouraging ROK to reconsider its decision before the GSOMIA formally expires in November, prospects are grim. For instance, after North Korea launched ballistic missiles on September 10, the two countries did not utilize GSOMIA to share military intelligence. International media publicity regarding the potential termination of GSOMIA has also been gaining increasingly less public traction with time (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of Newspaper Articles on GSOMIA (in English, from July 1 – October 16, 2019) 

In weighing the benefits and costs of GSOMIA, many experts and scholars turn to the Trilateral Intelligence Sharing Arrangement (TISA) as its substitute. TISA, signed in late December 2014, enables both Japan and South Korea to access military information on North Korea through the U.S. Meanwhile, GSOMIA—the first military agreement between Japan and ROK since 1945—was signed in November 2016 to allow the two nations to directly exchange military intelligence. Since GSOMIA, “TISA has not been activated very much.”

The question, then, is whether TISA could serve as an adequate alternative for GSOMIA. The next sections provide a brief overview of both Japanese and South Korean perspectives on the issue in reference to the conference proceedings at the U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateral Dialogue in Maui (hosted by Pacific Forum) in September.

Japan’s Perspective:

Operational Significance of GSOMIA: Is Military Intelligence Cooperation with ROK Really Necessary?

The view of GSOMIA’s operational value varies among Japanese intellectuals. Proponents support the extension of GSOMIA pointing the importance of comprehensive intelligence collection. For example, in the case of North Korea’s missile launch, ROK is in a better position to attain more accurate data of the boost phase in addition to detect signs of a launch from suspicious activities of personnel and vehicles. Furthermore, HUMINT collected by ROK claimed to be valuable by some government officials and experts. These types of information combined with U.S. intelligence such as gathered by Early Warning Radar will supplement each other and enable extensive and multifaceted analysis on DPRK’s military activities.

On the other hand, some experts question the value of GSOMIA arguing the alternative use of TISA and the superiority of Japanese intelligence capability. Japan currently has seven ISR satellites in operation, six Aegis BMD-capable vessels and four ground-based radars in addition to maritime patrol aircrafts and Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. Some claim Japan has sufficient intelligence capabilities without relying on information from ROK which possesses much fewer equipment and assets related to intelligence collection activities.  Moreover, some argue Japan could achieve necessary information exchange through TISA instead of GSOMIA.

However, intelligence analysis based on information obtained only by Japan and the U.S. might overlook some important observables and fail to attain comprehensive picture. Also, as discussed in the section above, TISA cannot ensure timely and comprehensive intelligence sharing like GSOMIA. Thus, even though Japan has better ISR capability and TISA will partially facilitate information sharing with ROK, comprehensive intelligence sharing under GSOMIA is an effective countermeasure for Japanese government to address new regional challenges not only limited to the DPRK’s missiles and nuclear programs but also including the threats from China and Russia.

South Korea’s Perspective:

90-Day Window Until the Final Deadline: Time Won, or Time Lost for South Korea?

The domestic political divide is reflected in the way South Korean officials and intellectuals evaluate GSOMIA, its military value and strategic implications. Those who stand in favor of the Moon administration’s decision to end GSOMIA view it as a diplomatic card against Japan amidst continued bilateral trade disputes. They advocate ROK’s maintenance of “strategic ambiguity” throughout the 90-day window between the government’s announcement to end GSOMIA in August and the deadline to renew it in November. By neither confirming nor denying its withdrawal from GSOMIA, proponents believe that ROK can utilize the time to effectively weigh its costs and benefits.

With regard to GSOMIA’s military significance, advocates of the government decision claim that TISA is a valid alternative as an intelligence-sharing mechanism between Japan and ROK. They argue that TISA is reliable since it had been utilized in the past prior to the enactment of GSOMIA, and because “the [same] level of confidential military information” is shared by TISA and GSOMIA. More active supporters consider GSOMIA as a biased agreement since it provides Tokyo easier access to Seoul’s information on early detection of North Korean missile and nuclear threats. By splitting the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance into two individual and competitive hubs-and-spokes, they suggest that Washington’s strong encouragement toward the renewal of GSOMIA may raise Seoul’s suspicion of its impartiality in addressing the two regional allies.

Perhaps the Moon administration’s announcement to withdraw from GSOMIA and its maintenance of “strategic ambiguity” throughout the three-month window following it are more strategically driven than they may seem. According to a survey conducted in late August, 54.9 percent of the South Korean public supported the decision end GSOMIA, showing a 7.9 percent point increase since earlier survey results. From the respondents, only 38.4 percent opposed the government decision. With continued Japanese boycotts in South Korea, public support is increasingly shifting towards GSOMIA’s termination.

However, time itself is a double-edged sword. While the administration has bought time to waver between renewal of and withdrawal from GSOMIA, prospects for reconciliation with Japan have further dimmed. As the deadline to renew the agreement approaches, ROK will have to arrive at a decision that will have lasting consequences on the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance. In addition, time will be paid later if ROK decides not to renew GSOMIA. TISA will slow down the intelligence-sharing process for both Japan and the ROK with the U.S. as an intermediary source of information. Most importantly, once terminated, it may take decades before an agreement such as GSOMIA is re-enacted between the two countries.

Conclusion: GSOMIA vs. TISA

Overall, while TISA may function as a substitute to GSOMIA, it is more likely to hinder swift intelligence exchange and effective coordination for three reasons.

First, unlike GSOMIA, information sharing under TISA is limited to North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. This limited focus weakens both Japan and ROK’s capabilities in addressing new regional challenges, such as North Korea’s SLBM. For instance, on October 2, DPRK launched the Pukguksong-3 into Japan’s exclusive economic zone.

Secondly, TISA provides lower intelligence confidentiality than GSOMIA. Under GSOMIA, Japan and ROK exchange information that is both confidential and legally binding. In contrast, under TISA, either Japan or ROK can reject the counterpart’s request for military intelligence if it detects the risk of information leakage. The issue of confidentiality, then, inevitably influences the two nations’ willingness to share information and especially valuable information.

Finally, information sharing between Japan and ROK through TISA will be operationally inefficient due to delays in information exchange. GSOMIA reduces this operational cost and facilitates swift coordination in intelligence gathering amongst the U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance.

During the U.S.-ROK-Japan Trilateral Dialogue in Maui, both South Korean and Japanese representatives—regardless of their respective political standing—either indirectly or directly suggested the need for continued bilateral cooperation. For instance, many South Korean participants inferred that the government would renew GSOMIA in so far as Japan initiates the reconciliation process. Japanese participants also showed willingness to share classified information with ROK through GSOMIA prior to receiving a formal request from Seoul.

Hence, what is necessary for the two parties at this time is mutual dialogue, which has been hindered by respective national pride. Deterrence against regional security threats require a cooperative effort based on a stable U.S.-Japan-ROK trilateral alliance; the termination of GSOMIA should be reconsidered before it is too late to nullify the decision.

Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent any organization.

PacNet #6 – Three Scenarios for the Quad and for ASEAN

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The reunion of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) in 2017 sparked concerns on several grounds, including perceptions that it would be a threat to multilateralism centered on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as well as a means to contain China. Originally banded together for aid efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, the group – consisting of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia – initially appeared to reflect a renewed convergence of strategic interests between these four major democracies in the region. Over time, however, questions have been raised about the Quad’s viability.

Yet, the fact that the Quad continues to meet – mostly at the senior officials’ level, although its inaugural foreign ministerial meeting was held in September 2019 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York – suggests that despite challenges, the four-member arrangement is likely to become a salient aspect of the regional security architecture. It would thus be worthwhile to consider how it could interact with ASEAN going forward, given that the latter is generally considered the primary multilateral organization in the Indo-Pacific. Here, we discuss three possible scenarios in which the Quad may evolve, and how ASEAN should respond.

Scenario One: Strengthened military cooperation

This scenario suggests the commencement of Quad meetings involving defense ministers or senior officials in the defense ministry, or even the inauguration of military exercises among the four countries. Annual Malabar joint naval exercises are already carried out between the United States, India, and Japan. Including Australia as a permanent participant would be a significant gesture pointing to a more coordinated quadrilateral security arrangement. To be fair, quadrilateral military exercises appear unlikely. For instance, India refused Australian participation to the 2017 and 2018 Malabar exercises despite Canberra’s bids to be part of the major multilateral naval drill. A meeting among defense senior officials, however, may be easier to achieve.

One way for ASEAN to respond to such a scenario would be to reinforce the idea of regional defense cooperation through the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), a platform that involves the 10 ASEAN member states and dialogue partners such as Australia, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States. While the ADMM-Plus is certainly not meant to compete with the Quad, its strength vis-à-vis the latter is its inclusivity. Promoting ADMM-Plus defense cooperation, be it through joint military exercises or other forms of interaction, would thus be useful in underlining the importance of an open and inclusive regional security architecture.

Scenario Two: The Quad falls apart

Quad 1.0 fell apart shortly after it was conceived when Australia walked away in consideration of Chinese sensibilities. While nuanced differences among the Quad countries have narrowed since, the viability of the grouping is uncertain insofar as it lacks a convincingly cohesive vision and an operational agenda. More significantly, the viability of the group remains largely susceptible to each country’s relations with China. In recent months, we have seen a significant warming of ties between Japan and China, with the two countries heralding a “new era” of bilateral relations. Following its non-aligned tradition, India has a conventionally different approach in dealing with China compared to Japan and Australia, which are US allies. On the other hand, Washington has dropped the niceties, suggesting that the Quad could be used to ensure that China “retains only its proper place in the world.” Given these differences, it is difficult to say that the Quad will not fall susceptible to the same reasons that led to its falling apart the first time, especially if the United States envisages the group as taking some sort of coordinated action against Beijing.

Despite debates about the Quad’s challenge to ASEAN centrality, the dissolution of the Quad may not necessarily be beneficial to ASEAN as a second suspension of the Quad could embolden revisionist powers to try to change the regional status quo. If the Quad falls apart again, the best option for ASEAN would be to seize the opportunity and reinforce its central place in the regional security architecture. This means strengthening ASEAN’s capacity as an independent actor and emphasizing the relevance of ASEAN-centric platforms to regional countries.

Scenario Three: The status quo

This is the most likely scenario for the Quad in the foreseeable future, as regular consultations among the four countries continue without significant stepping up of cooperation. For what it is worth, the revival of the Quad provides a useful dialogue mechanism for discussions to be had over shared values and interests in the region. At the same time, it is clear that the Quad countries have varying priorities and perceptions of the region. The fact that the Quad meetings so far have failed to produce a single joint statement signals the struggle within the grouping to reconcile views on critical issues. It is thus realistic to expect that the Quad maintains its status quo for the time being.

Here, ASEAN should work to ensure that even as the Quad continues its consultative dialogue, the “hub” of the broad multilateralism remains through ASEAN. This means, for example, providing a reason for all four Quad members to continue committing to ASEAN-centric platforms. In this sense, ASEAN should consider how it could continue to serve the interests of its dialogue partners. This could involve, as some have advocated, making the leaders-level East Asia Summit the premier regional forum for exchanges and discussions on strategic issues. Ensuring that non-ASEAN countries have a reason to consistently engage with ASEAN would serve the latter’s objectives in the context of ASEAN centrality and relevance. Going forward, the Quad’s value is expected to remain in the potential that it holds more than that of which it demonstrates. It is important for ASEAN to adopt a commensurate approach in response.

Amanda Trea Phua (isamandaphua@ntu.edu.sg) is a Senior Analyst with the United States Programme and Sarah Teo (islsteo@ntu.edu.sg) is an Associate Research Fellow with the Regional Security Architecture Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.