The Defense Secretary’s Southeast Asia Trip and US Forces Korea

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin embarked on an overseas trip to Asia yesterday. Blinken will visit India and Kuwait, while Austin will visit Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines. The trip marks Blinken and Austin’s second visit to Asia, taking place less than six months after their trip to South Korea and Japan in March.

We can easily infer the reason for Blinken’s visit to India. The U.S. needs to coordinate strategies with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, of which India is a part, and address humanitarian concerns associated with India’s COVID-19 crisis. On the other hand, Austin’s visit to Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines seems rather unusual. It signifies that Austin’s Southeast Asia trip is more than a simple show of courtesy. To understand this move, one needs to start at Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Shortly after he was sworn into office, Biden issued two important orders to the Pentagon. One was to create a China Task Force to reconsider defense policies with respect to China; the other was to initiate a global posture review to examine the deployment of U.S. troops on a global scale. The Pentagon formed a 15-member China Task Force and assessed subjects such as China’s threat, U.S. military strategy and alliances for four months. The team’s analysis has already been submitted to the White House in a confidential report. The global posture review, meanwhile, is also in its final stages. The completion of both analyses will make the relocation of U.S. military power to confront the Chinese threat a reality.

Currently, U.S. forces in Asia consist of 52,000 troops in Japan and 28,500 troops in South Korea. Around 200 troops are stationed in Australia, Singapore and Thailand as well. However, the U.S. believes that the the concentration of military presence in Northeast Asia is not only ineffective against Chinese threats in the South China Sea, but also leaves U.S. troops vulnerable to an attack by China. The rationale is that there are no U.S. troops currently available for immediate response to unexpected situations in the South China Sea, and that bases in Japan and South Korea are too densely populated and thus susceptible to potential missile attacks.

The three countries included on Austin’s itinerary are those that the U.S. believes to be key bases in the South China Sea. The geographical location of the three countries means they have an important place in the U.S. defense strategy, where Singapore is the road, the Philippines is the hammer, and Vietnam is the anvil in the Strait of Malacca. Austin will be discussing various options for relocating U.S. troops with these countries. Vietnam, a Quad member* currently facing a conflict with China over the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, will be a central decision-maker in this process. Another crucial factor is how the Philippines will respond to this move, considering both its status as a U.S. ally and its pro-Chinese, anti-American alignment. The Philippines is especially important because it serves both as a hammer aimed at China and a wall to contain China’s military force within the first island chain linking Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines. The U.S. seeks to deploy a variety of military forces to the Philippines; Austin’s visit will determine whether it will be made possible.

South Korea cannot afford to leisurely watch Austin’s trip to Southeast Asia. As the global posture review nears completion, the outcome of the visit will have a significant impact on United States Forces Korea as well. In early March, then-undersecretary of defense for policy nominee Colin Kahl stated that the U.S. commitment to South Korea is not tied to a “magic number” of forces, implying the size of USFK may be adjusted anytime according to U.S. strategic needs. This means that discussions about reducing the number of troops in South Korea may become an urgent matter in the near future. South Korea should not be comforted by Biden halting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany. Nor should it interpret Congress agreeing to maintain the current level of troops as a sign it will continue to do so.

The Biden administration’s global posture review is different from that of the Bush administration, which focused on strategic flexibility after the 9/11 attacks, and the Trump administration, which frequently mentioned withdrawing troops from Germany and South Korea as a tool to pressure allies into increasing their payment for U.S. military presence. The Biden administration’s global posture review will be a sophisticated analysis focusing thoroughly on China. South Korea must be ready to persuade the U.S. about its needs before the Biden analysis is completed.

*Editor’s Note: Vietnam is not at this time a formal Quadrilateral Alliance member.

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