SEOUL — A possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate said Friday the U.S. should continue to increase its military presence in Asia despite the costs, citing concerns about a rising China and a repressive, unpredictable North Korea.
“American policymakers must find ways to make sure that our efforts to be fiscally responsible do not undermine our progress,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., told a forum in Seoul that capped a week-long trip to the region. “I remain confident that our commitments in Asia can be adequately resourced.”
Rubio, a member of the Senate foreign relations and intelligence committees known for his leadership in the tea party movement, dismissed recent calls by the North to end hostile rhetoric between the two countries and for the U.S. and South Korea to cancel their upcoming annual military exercise, saying it was part of a pattern of conciliatory gestures followed by provocations.
“Ultimately, there’s an expression in America that ‘Talk is cheap’… It needs to be followed by something that creates confidence,” he said. “I haven’t seen that, and I don’t think anybody has.”
Rubio said any future U.S. engagement with the North’s “rogue and murderous regime” must be carefully coordinated with South Korea, and the U.S. must be careful that its diplomatic initiatives don’t encourage further provocations.
Rubio, who made several mentions of his background as a first-generation American born to Cuban immigrants, said he believes the two Koreas will unify under a democratic government.
“I believe and I personally pray that day will happen soon and in our lifetimes,” he said.
Rubio’s remarks at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies followed stops earlier in the week in Japan and the Philippines, where he toured the typhoon-wrecked city of Tacloban. He met Thursday with U.S. troops stationed along the Demilitarized Zone, and had an appointment with South Korea’s foreign minister Friday afternoon.
While saying the U.S. does not seek to contain a rising China, he urged Beijing to “become a responsible stakeholder in the international system,” chastising it for its declaration of an air defense identification zone last November. The U.S., Japan and South Korea have refused to comply with requests to submit flight plans before flying military aircraft through the zone.
Rubio called on South Korea and Japan to jointly address the “deeply painful and sensitive” grievances that threaten the relationship between the two U.S. allies, but said Washington should not become involved in the matter.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which memorializes the nation’s war dead, has exacerbated already-high tensions with South Korea and China, which believe Tokyo has not fully apologized for its militaristic past.
Historical issues — including the portrayal of history in Japanese textbooks and sexual slavery during Japan’s colonial rule, as well as claims by both countries to islets between them — frequently make headlines in South Korea.
“These are real challenges, and we cannot ignore them,” said Rubio, but “a closer bond between our allies will deeply improve security in the region.”