U.S. President Joe Biden is ticking off his administration’s to-do list for shoring up America’s alliances in Asia.
On Sunday, the U.S. State Department announced that Washington and Seoul had reached a tentative deal on a “meaningful increase” in cost-sharing for hosting American troops in South Korea, less than a month after concluding a one-year deal with Japan.
The breakthrough was expected to impact ongoing U.S. talks on a longer-term agreement with Tokyo.
Known as a “Special Measures Agreement” (SMA), the deal announced Sunday is expected to be for multiple years and will replace the previous arrangement that expired at the end of 2019 under then-U.S. President Donald Trump.
The State Department did not release details of the deal with Seoul, but said the two sides had “reached consensus” on a proposed text “that will strengthen our alliance and our shared defense.”
“This proposed agreement, containing a negotiated meaningful increase in host nation support contributions from the Republic of Korea, reaffirms that the U.S.-Republic of Korea alliance is the linchpin of peace, security, and prosperity for Northeast Asia and a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” a State Department spokesperson told The Japan Times.
The spokesperson said the two allies are now taking the final steps to seal the deal, which must still be approved by the South Korean parliament. The South Korean Foreign Ministry confirmed the tentative agreement in a statement, also offering no specifics.
While details were few, the two sides could sign the deal when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visit Seoul next week after traveling to Japan, according to South Korean media.
The Wall Street Journal, which was the first to report the agreement, said it would last through 2025.
Negotiations had ground to a halt under Trump after he rejected Seoul’s offer to pay 13% more, or about $1 billion per year, for the costs of hosting around 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.
Trump had reportedly demanded as much as $5 billion each year, prompting critics to label the alliance a “protection racket” and stoking concern among other allies, such as Japan, that they would face similar calls to cough up considerably more cash — or risk the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Since 1991, South Korea has provided financial support through a series of SMAs to offset the cost of stationing U.S. troops in Korea.
It was unclear whether the U.S. had agreed to the 13% offer, but observers said any agreement was likely to pass parliament, where President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party and its allies have a strong majority.
Moon is widely seen as keen to move on after the contentious cost-sharing negotiations under Trump, and focus on his outreach to North Korea before his single five-year term ends next year.
The announcement of the tentative deal also came as the South Korea and U.S militaries kicked off annual drills scheduled to last for nine days. The South Korean military said the drills were command post exercises with computerized simulation and wouldn’t involve field training.
James Schoff, a former senior Pentagon East Asia specialist now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the deal was a very achievable agreement early in the new administration, adding that it was in the interests of both sides to settle it quickly “to move on to more important things.”
Those include finalizing the U.S. policy review toward North Korea and working with the Moon administration on the issue once that is completed, as well as “Biden’s priority of harmonizing China policy as much as possible,” Schoff said.
But he said that while the deal was “good for the region as a whole,” it may not bode well for Tokyo.
“To the extent the SMA deal includes a significant percentage increase, that’s not a good model for Japan” ahead of Tokyo’s own talks to seal a new multiyear agreement, Schoff said.
Japan’s one-year deal inked last month saw Tokyo agree to shoulder about ¥200 billion — roughly in line with the previous year — and was viewed as a temporary measure. Japanese defense officials have said negotiations on a new deal beyond April 2022 were set to continue, and that a decision on the amount and length of that agreement would be discussed during those talks.
Although the two cost-sharing agreements maintained by the U.S. with Seoul and Tokyo are vastly different, the increase in the amount covered by South Korea is expected to have at least some knock-on effects for Japan, said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“There is going to be a need to also have a ‘meaningful increase’ in the Japanese formulation, as well,” she said.
This increase, however, may not necessarily take the shape of traditional spending. Instead, it may come in the form of a larger role that Japan plays in the United States’ regional strategy.
“The ‘meaningful’ part is going to be knitting that financial piece into a revived or depended strategy for making the alliance more effective,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s just a numbers game. (The U.S is) going to be looking for the strategic framing.”
But much of how Japan’s cost-sharing talks unfold will depend on what happens in the months ahead, including whether the administration of Yoshihide Suga can beat back novel coronavirus infections and emerge victorious in a Lower House election that must be held sometime before October.
“I don’t think in the middle of COVID, prior to a big election, Suga is going to be able to tackle some of these bigger strategic things,” Smith said. “That’s not going to come until after the fall.”
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