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Analysis

Trump’s ‘America first’ tensions exposed as defense secretary ends Asia trip

Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks during a news conference in Sydney on Aug. 4, 2019.

BRENDON THORNE/BLOOMBERG

By GLEN CAREY | Bloomberg | Published: November 20, 2019

The tension between bolstering U.S. alliances while pursuing an “America first” foreign policy tripped up Defense Secretary Mark Esper on a tour through Asia — while still leaving the Pentagon chief exposed to Washington politics thousands of miles away.

During the course of a week, Esper had the unenviable job of pressing South Korea and Japan to spend vastly more money to host U.S. troops, rescuing a soon-to-expire intelligence pact between the Asian allies and extending an olive branch to the notoriously fickle North Korean regime as a year-end deadline for nuclear talks seems all but dead.

It was rough going.

Esper landed in Seoul with Trump demanding South Korea pay about $5 billion for the privilege of hosting U.S. troops, a 400% increase from current levels. Similar demands last year cratered discussions between the two countries and threatened to divide the allies just as they were trying to present a united front against North Korea’s nuclear program.

“Korea is a wealthy country, and could and should pay more to offset the cost of defense,” Esper said Friday, a message he reiterated days later in Manila. It’s an argument the Trump administration has made to allies around the world, but in Asia, it failed.

Negotiations broke down soon after Esper left Seoul, with the U.S. side saying it cut talks short because the South Koreans “were not responsive” to American demands for “fair and equitable burden-sharing.”

The South Korean Foreign Ministry said both sides were far apart when their U.S. counterparts left the negotiating table.

“Japan and South Korea see the U.S. troops as both an aid and a burden in many ways,” said Paul Sullivan, a security expert at the National Defense University in Washington. “Paying more is a political issue for both countries, as there are many people in both countries who find their presence disturbing.”

Esper also struggled to get South Korean president Moon Jae-in to renew an intelligence-sharing pact with Japan, even after repeatedly warning that North Korea and China were the only beneficiaries of their countries’ discord. The agreement is to expire Nov. 23.

As the U.S. was prodding America’s allies to do more, Esper and his South Korean counterpart, Jeong Kyeong-doo, announced that they would postpone some joint military exercises planned this month in an “act of goodwill” to keep alive nuclear negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

But North Korean nuclear adviser Kim Kye Gwan said Pyongyang was done giving Trump “things to boast about,” the state’s official KCNA news agency reported on Monday. With little progress being made toward Kim Jong Un’s deadline, North Korea is no longer interested in talks that Washington “uses to buy time,” KCNA reported.

A senior U.S. defense official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, called that reaction unhelpful.

Japan’s military chief, Taro Kono, indicated that there is little to be upbeat about when it comes to talks with North Korea. “No one could be optimistic,” he said, pointing to Pyongyang’s testing of ballistic missiles — something Trump has dismissed as insignificant — as a “serious threat” to the region.

As Esper sought to focus on national security issues, the president weighed in with a politically charged decision to pardon two Army officers over murder charges and to promote a Navy SEAL who had been demoted following a conviction for posing with a corpse — decisions that current and former senior military officers were believed to be strongly against.

Trump, who presents himself as a champion of the military and law enforcement, took the action as he pursues re-election while facing an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House.

Esper deflected questions about his views on those specific cases, saying he has “great faith” in the military justice system. U.S. military personnel “are trained from day one about the laws of armed conflict and how to conduct themselves during wartime,” Esper said. If members of the armed forces don’t act in accordance with laws, the U.S. military will take action “to make sure that they are held accountable,” he added.

Esper has made Asia-Pacific strategy a priority and the trip was his second to the region since taking office in July. But as he prepares to return to Washington on Thursday, the U.S. is still viewed as being more heavily engaged in the Middle East.

The senior U.S. official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the U.S. received expressions of support from regional allies for what they are doing in the region. He added that there were no complaints from Southeast Asian nations that the U.S. was distracted by domestic events or by America’s focus on containing Iran in the Persian Gulf.

Saying he was responding to increased concerns from Asian partners about China’s footprint in the region, Esper said the U.S. is conducting more patrols in the South China Sea. Those patrols send a signal to Beijing that the U.S. intends to maintain freedom in an area that’s crucial for global trade, he added. Chinese officials said the U.S. was working to “fan the flames” in the region.

En route to Asia, Esper told reporters that the purpose of his trip was “to reinforce the importance of allies and partners” and “make sure that they understand clearly” that the Asia-Pacific region is the Pentagon’s “number one priority.”

But specific doubts about Trump’s policies, whether it’s his 2017 decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal or his more general pressure on allies to spend more for American troops — have undermined regional confidence in the U.S., according to James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“There is every reason for Asian nations to hedge their bets,” he said.

Underscoring his country’s role and history in Asia, Esper on Tuesday took part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, where thousands of Americans who died in World War II are buried, along with soldiers and sailors from the Philippines and other allies.

Bloomberg’s Jihye Lee contributed.

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