THE BLOG
11/23/2016 10:40 am ET Updated Nov 24, 2017

Why Trump Should Avoid a Hasty Divorce in Asia

For his first meeting with a head of state, President-elect Trump met with Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan since 2012. Although the specifics of their conversation remain undisclosed, PM Abe left the meeting with the feeling that, in his words, "President-elect Trump is a leader who can be trusted". Trust is an essential element in any close relationship, but especially so in the US-Japan alliance, which was forged in the aftermath of the Second World War and remains the linchpin of security in East Asia.

In his election rhetoric, Mr. Trump expressed concerns over the financial expense of the US-Japan alliance and other US security arrangements in Asia and beyond. But while these concerns are not entirely unfounded, alliance relationships cannot be counted in dollars alone. The costs of our Mutual Defense Treaties with Japan and South Korea are not borne solely by the United States. The treaties commit each country to intervene militarily on the side of any treaty partner that is attacked. This guarantee of mutual support in the face of peril has underwritten what has been termed the post-war "East Asian Peace". The value of the absence of a hot war in East Asia, to our security interests and trade relationships, is not easy to add up.

It is undoubtedly true that our alliance partners in East Asia benefit from the United States' nuclear umbrella and security guarantees. They get the protection of our nuclear umbrella without having to pay the cost of their own. But it's a great deal for us as well. If the weapons are ours, then we have the security of knowing that they can never be used against us, or fall into the wrong hands.


And our Asian allies aren't exactly free riders. To be sure, Japan and South Korea benefit from the stationing of US military personnel in their respective countries, but they have their share of costs as well. In addition to the roughly 28,500 US troops stationed in South Korea, the country maintains more than 600,000 of its own active duty troops with an additional 4.5 million reservists - an expense borne by the South Koreans themselves. South Korea is keenly aware of the threat posed by its neighbor and the necessity of maintaining a good relationship with the United States as reflected in its relatively high level of defense spending. South Korea currently spends 2.6% of its GDP on its military, which is more than any NATO country.

As I have argued in the journal Asian Security, we must look at the totality of the alliance relationship to measure its true value. South Korea has historically participated in US-led military operations. They supplied more than 300,000 troops in the Vietnam War, and both South Korea and Japan made significant contributions to the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries in which they have no obvious strategic or economic interests and that did not pose a direct security threat. They each provided substantial foreign assistance to Afghanistan: Japan gave roughly $4.3 billion from 2001 to mid-2012. Japan also undertook a refueling mission in support of military operations in Afghanistan while South Korea deployed troops in February 2002. In 2003, Japan deployed military forces to Iraq, having previously played a key role in financing the 1991 Gulf War. These contributions by our partners are often difficult to measure in monetary terms, but are essential to the success of US policy.


In addition to the $1.7 billion and $867 million they respectively contribute to the bases' annual costs, the Japanese and South Korean people also bear social costs from hosting US troops. Politically, it's not always easy to have foreign troops on your soil. Local opposition to US bases has been most prominent on Okinawa, where US military facilities make up almost twenty percent of the island's territory. Some opponents have focused on the fact that US servicemen on Okinawa have been repeatedly charged with crimes against the local community ranging from burglary to rape and, most recently in May 2016, murder. South Korea, too, has paid a price for its cooperation with the United States. During the Vietnam War, South Korean forces suffered between 10,000 and 15,000 casualties. More recently, the Taliban took 23 South Korean missionaries in Afghanistan hostage in 2007 and subsequently executed two of them. South Korea withdrew its military personnel in response, only to return to Afghanistan with civilian personnel as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team.


In the end, our Asian alliances are like long and successful marriages: they have their ups and downs, but all sides have invested blood and treasure to build and sustain a relationship that provides remarkable security. We should avoid any hasty divorces that might prove more costly than we think.