Military expense hike puts a strain on US-Japan-ROK alliance

China Military Online
Xu Yi
2020-01-22 15:57:14
An American soldier sits on an armored vehicle during a routine joint military exercise in Yeoncheon-gun, the Republic of Korea (ROK). Photo from Xinhua News Agency

By Li Zhihong

The sixth round of defense fee sharing negotiations between the Republic of Korea and the United States, which were held on January 14-15, local time, failed to produce an agreement, their 11th Special Measure Agreement (SMA). America’s request to significantly increase the ratio of military expenses borne by the ROK was rejected, and ROK insisted on maintaining the current cost-sharing arrangement, leaving the negotiations at a stalemate.

The New York Times reported that Trump recently demanded Japan to bear more expenses for the American troops stationed there, and defense expense negotiation between the two countries may kick off in this summer.

The high pressure of bearing much more military expenses for the stationed American troops has put a strain on the US-Japan-ROK alliance.

Each party has its own considerations

Li Jiacheng, an associate professor at the School of International Studies, Liaoning University and a researcher at the Charhar Institute, said in an interview that the ROK has to be “grilled” by the US every year because the one-year agreement has to be renewed annually. “This year Washington asks Seoul to bear five times more military expenses, which is a huge fiscal burden on the latter and will affect a series of issues, including the ‘independent national defense development’ proposed by President Moon Jae-in and the future transfer of command of wartime operations.”

But Washington doesn’t care about Seoul’s “dilemma”, instead it believes it has paid too high a security cost for the ROK and Japan and it’s only natural for them to pay a higher price, said Li Jiacheng, adding that “this has something to do with Trump’s pursuit for unilateral interests. He never cares much about the interests of US allies ever since he took office.” The Trump administration has always been adamant about shifting more military expenses to the ROK and Japan.

With the upcoming presidential election in November, Trump called during his election campaign four years ago for downsizing and withdrawing American troops stationed overseas. His putting so much pressure on Japan and ROK at such a juncture is related with the upcoming election, said Li Jiacheng. “With the pressure of competition from Democratic candidate Biden and with the impeachment inquiry, Trump has to make some diplomatic achievements urgently. If Seoul and Tokyo eventually agree to bear a larger proportion of the defense expenses, that will be something Trump can brag about and add fuel to his election campaign.”

Allies drift apart

The ROK Foreign Ministry said that the ROK and the US decide to have close consultation and try to come to an agreement as soon as possible. The seventh round negotiation is expected to begin at the end of this month.

“It’s highly likely that ROK will continue to play the delaying tactic,” Li Jiacheng pointed out, “once it agrees to bear five times more of military expenses of the stationed American troops, it will put itself in a very bad situation and trigger Domino effects because Washington may keep asking for more.”

NHK reported earlier that Japan had assigned military vessels and patrol planes to the Middle East, and Reuters reported that Abe has recently reaffirmed his plan to continue sending Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to that region as well, which, in Li Jiacheng’s opinion, may be a sign of Japan’s overture to the US. In comparison, the ROK’s ambiguity during the negotiations about sending troops to the Middle East can be also interpreted as a signal. However, Li added, Japan’s overtures may not be of any use given Trump’s political character.

ROK’s response to the heavy pressure imposed by the US will offer some “references” to Japan in this year’s negotiations, but Li Jiacheng analyzed that the ROK and Japan’s military strength will be seriously weakened if they lose America’s assistance due to their obvious inferiority in that field. Besides, Washington has the upper hand in the negotiations because it still holds the “trump card” of withdrawing the stationed troops from those two countries, which will probably give in to US pressure by opting for the “lesser evil” in the end.

“The US has been trying to create the so-called ‘mini-NATO for Northeast Asia’, but its bullying moves represented by the rising defense expense will unavoidably deepen the rift among the allies and cause the US-Japan-ROK alliance to become ever more loosely bound,” said Li Jiacheng.

Disclaimer: This article is originally published on, which is the website of Overseas Edition of the People's Daily. The article is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of

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