With traditional U.S. deployments still under review, the defense secretary announced he hopes to visit China by year’s end.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has given no orders yet to reduce the number of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, one week after the Pentagon reportedly presented the president with options to reduce the force there as part of a worldwide review of U.S. military deployments.
Esper said he wants to replace permanent forces stationed abroad with units that would rotate in from the United States on temporary duty.
“We will continue to look at adjustments at every command we have, at every theater, to make sure we are optimizing our forces,” Esper said in a live stream from the Pentagon. “I continue to want to pursue more rotational force deployments into theaters, because it gives us greater strategic flexibility in terms of responding to challenges around the globe.”
U.S. leaders for years have tried to get South Korea to pay more for the cost of basing 28,500 American troops permanently stationed on the peninsula. President Donald Trump has demanded that South Korea pay far more — $5 billion compared to less than $1 billion in 2019. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Pentagon presented the president with options for a drawdown in South Korea as part of a potential new force laydown globally. The U.S. and South Korea have not been able to craft a new cost-sharing agreement, known as the Special Measures Agreement, which expired December 31.
Critics of the president’s approach argue that keeping U.S. forces in South Korea is in the United States’ national security interest as much as it helps South Korea and other regional allies. Trump’s view, according to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, is that ‘we were in [South Korea] to defend them. We were not there for ‘collective defense’ or ‘mutual security’ or any of that complex international stuff.” Trump has also argued that South Korea, now a prosperous country decades after the Korean War, can afford to pay more.
Officials in the State Department and the Defense Department, Bolton writes in a recent memoir of his time in the White House, balked because they “didn’t want to charge host countries as if we were mercenaries, and also because they knew it would be hard to obtain such major increases.”
But Trump has continued to push for the pay increases or troop cuts — leaving a new Special Measures Agreement in limbo.
Americans “are getting a little bit tired of paying too much for the defense of other countries,” former ambassador to Germany and Trump loyalist Richard Grenell told a German newspaper last month.
“We want to bring troops [home] from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, from South Korea, Japan and from Germany,” he said.
Esper on Tuesday also laced into Chinese behavior in the region, accusing Beijing of “regularly disrespecting the rights of other nations.” Trump administration officials have been giving a series of speeches on China outlining new policy and arguments to support them. The Pentagon has seen China’s provocative actions “pick up” since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Esper said.
Esper said the United States continues to seek a cooperative relationship with Beijing — even amid rising tensions between the two nations and a full-court press by the U.S. government in recent months, calling out what it sees as unacceptable actions by China.
Esper announced that he hopes to visit China before the end of 2020, to "enhance cooperation on areas of common interest, establish...crisis communications and reinforce our intentions to openly compete in the international system."
"We are not in search of conflict,” Esper said.