Although Washington has closed a number of US military bases in recent years, the country still maintains approximately 800 military bases in over 70 countries, ranging from giant compounds to small radar facilities. Most of America’s military bases were established during the Cold War, but some of them have only appeared relatively recently. Over the last few years, the risk of military confrontation with China has increased, which could see conflict breaking out in the Asia-Pacific region, East Asia and Southeast Asia. This is why US military bases in Japan, South Korea, as well as Singapore, have become crucially important for the United States.
A study conducted by American Professor David Vine highlights the geographical reach of US military bases, which are scattered across many different locations all over the world. It would therefore be no stretch of the imagination to say that these military bases not only help Washington to extend its sphere of influence to reach every corner of the earth, but they are also being used by the US to try and control almost the entire world.
The United States spends billions of dollars maintaining its image as the “world’s policeman”, which could be put to other uses to benefit the American economy. However, Washington is not going to just withdraw its global military presence, since American dominance is maintained on aircraft carriers, fighter jets and bayonets of US marines to name a few.
The US Department of Defense is allocated a $650 billion annual budget, and $70-100 billion of this budget is spent on servicing overseas military bases every year. Back in the day, the US tried to offer attractive incentives to make it profitable for countries to host these military bases and the troops stationed there. While some developed counties might be capable of covering their own security needs without having to rely on US security assistance (e.g. Germany, France or Japan), the US military bases hosted in the Baltic states i.e. former Soviet republics, or in Poland for example, have offered these countries a great source of income. However, this may all be about to change now.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly stressed that ensuring the security of US allies is draining the country’s budget. Trump wants to ensure that American military bases generate a profit for the United States, and he therefore intends to have these American overseas military bases undergo a transition so that they pay for themselves, which would see the countries where these American troops are deployed bear the full cost of hosting American servicemen. During a speech at the Pentagon in January, Trump said: “Wealthy, wealthy countries that we’re protecting are all under notice… We cannot be the fools for others.” At the same time, Trump demanded that his NATO military partners who host US military bases provide full reimbursement for their maintenance, plus 50% on top “for the privilege of hosting American troops.” Washington even promised discounts and “bonuses” for countries that fully comply with US foreign policy.
Washington’s demands were met with a backlash from practically all the countries hosting American military bases. Many of these military bases were actually established by the United States in the country’s own interest, and reflect an American expansionist policy which aims to increase US military presence, expanding into different regions all over the world. Despite this backlash however, Washington has already sent emissaries to many countries to negotiate, who are trying to get other countries to agree to meet Trump’s demand.
No exception was made for South Korea, where bilateral defense cost-sharing talks were held on November 5 to discuss how to split the costs to pay for the 28.5 thousand American troops stationed there. South Korean TV channel YTN reported that the US authorities believe they are spending too much on ensuring the security of their allies, and have demanded that the Republic of Korea increase annual spending to maintain a US military presence to 5 trillion won ($4.7 billion), five times greater than the amount currently being spent. At the same time, US Department of State Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements Bureau of Political-Military Affairs James DeHart said that the sum the US is asking for would only partially reimburse the total amount being spent by the US on defense in the Korean Peninsula, and therefore a certain amount of the requested contribution should also be allocated to support the US military outside the Korean Peninsula.
The US military presence in the region dates back to the fifties, when armed forces were sent there during the Korean War. The conditions under which the American troops are allowed to be stationed in South Korea are regulated by a “Mutual Defense Assistance Act”, signed by the two countries on January 26, 1950.
Seoul has already spent $915 million this year to maintain the US military presence. A 8.2% increase in spending has already occurred this year, which is due to the fact that the previous agreement between the two countries expired in December 2018 (the previous agreement was valid for five years, the new one was signed for a one-year term).
At the end of October, Washington asked Seoul to use the South Korean military to engage in joint combat missions with the US in different parts of the world. The suggestion being made was that the two countries should increase the range of joint responses to crisis situations they take part in, rather than limiting their military partnership to addressing the situation around the Korean Peninsula, and that they should also respond to threats to US national security around the world. According to reports in the South Korean media, the proposal was made in preparation for the transfer of the wartime operational control of South Korean forces from Washington to Seoul, which was planned to be completed by 2022. South Korea transferred its right to control its own troops to the United States after the Korean War of 1950-1953, which is how the South Koreans sought to protect themselves from being attacked by the DPRK. The United States still has the right to lead wartime operational control of troops, although an agreement to transfer full control back to the South Koreans was reached in 2007.
According to the concerns that have been reported, South Korea has opposed the US initiative, clearly fearing that the US would be able to ask South Korea to send its troops to different parts of the world if the current agreements are revised, including deployment to the Middle East and the South China Sea, in order to serve America’s own military interests.
In response to the US demand for the South Koreans to pay five times the amount they had been paying to maintain the US military presence in South Korea, Seoul has maintained the position that an increase in defense spending is subject to parliamentary approval. If the cost were to also include the maintenance of troops overseas, it will be impossible to carry out checks, and Seoul is not prepared to pay for this.
At a time when Trump’s plans are being met with a great deal of opposition in the Republic of Korea, some regional media sources have published fake news that Washington “may play the card of withdrawing its troops from South Korea at any moment.” This ‘news’ is being generated as part of an ongoing media campaign to highlight the threat posed by North Korea to the South Korea’s security, so it is obvious that the people behind it intend on talking the South Korean authorities into agreeing to Trump’s plans.
After South Korea, Washington should not expect talks on these issues to be any less heated with Tokyo, as the Japanese public is increasingly opposed to the American military presence in Japan.
Vladimir Platov, an expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.