With the Drawdown of US Forces in Germany, Is South Korea Next?

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


With the drawdown of U.S. forces in Germany underway, a reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea is now more likely than ever, given evolving U.S. defense priorities and longstanding trends on the Korean Peninsula. Rumors of an imminent U.S. force drawdown in Korea have been circulating since at least 2019, and President Donald Trump has made it clear he wants to reduce large overseas basing. South Korea, however, is a particularly contentious case, as any changes to the size and structure of U.S. forces must take into consideration both the local mission of deterring against North Korea, as well as the broader U.S. strategic mission of refocusing on great power competition, particularly with China. And that will require reassessing South Korea’s own national defense capabilities, the benefits and risks of having a large forward force based on the Asian mainland, and the impact of any shift in forces on the overall perception of U.S. commitment and reliability with other allies and partners in the region.

The Question of U.S. Forces in South Korea

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has sought to reduce its large-scale overseas basing, both to reduce financial and political costs and create a more flexible and responsive force structure better adapted to the changing threat dynamic. Cost-sharing agreements are often contentious, and the current stalemate between the United States and South Korea has dragged on with no end in sight. U.S. basing is also often a source of protest inside South Korea, over land use, accidents or illegal behavior by U.S. personnel, and the perception of continued occupation. Reducing the U.S. footprint and shifting more to naval, air and rotational units could ease these tensions.

Under the current National Defense Strategy (NDS), Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is now reviewing the overall posture of U.S. forces abroad, with the mandate toward a more flexible forward posture. Since the early 2000s, U.S. forces in Korea have moved out of the major facility at Yongsan in Seoul. The United States has also pulled most of its forces south of the Han River. During the Iraq War, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush cut total troop numbers in Korea by nearly 12,000 as well, in part because forces based in Korea cannot be readily used for contingencies elsewhere.

Amid reports that the Pentagon had already recommended force restructuring in Korea, Esper said on July 21 that he had given no order to withdraw forces, but then emphasized that he was reviewing all geographic combatant commands in line with the current NDS, with a desire for more rotational forces and greater strategic flexibility.

In that context, a longstanding suggestion for reshaping the U.S. military posture in South Korea is a further shift toward more naval and air assets, and reduced U.S. ground forces — potentially moving more ground forces to a rotational basis, rather than extended deployments. Doing so would maintain a deterrent presence in Korea and retain the benefit of training with South Korean forces, while still reducing constraints due to limits on the deployment of Korean-based forces to conflicts elsewhere. Rotational forces also have a smaller footprint in overseas basing, as they do not include family or family support functions that extended deployments entail.


The U.S. will not abandon South Korea given its value in deterring both North Korea and China. Washington will, however, continue to reshape its overseas force posture.


The restructuring of U.S. forces, however, is complicated by U.S. operational control (OPCON) over South Korean forces in the event of war. South Korea has had its military under U.S. OPCON since the Korean War in the early 1950s, with the South Korean military only regaining formal OPCON of its own forces in peacetime in 1994. Over the decades, the transfer of wartime OPCON to South Korea has been delayed numerous times due to its military’s perceived unreadiness and occasional flare-ups of tensions with North Korea. For South Korea, particularly under liberal governments like that of current President Moon Jae In, OPCON transfer is a critical step to fully realizing its independence and national pride. Korea was under Japanese control from 1910 to 1945, and has had its military under U.S. OPCON since the Korean War. And while its alliance with the United States remains important for Seoul, the nature of the two countries’ military relationship is still at times seen as paternalistic

The Case for Restructuring

There are several arguments in support of such a restructuring. For one, U.S. forces in South Korea are largely a Cold War left-over and are limited in use for operations outside the country. South Korea, Germany and Japan continue to represent the largest hosting of U.S. forces abroad, and the largest expenditures for basing. Prior to the announced drawdown, Germany hosted more than 35,000 U.S. forces, South Korea more than 26,000 and Japan more than 55,000, according to the latest tally by the Heritage Foundation’s Defense Manpower Data Center. The Pentagon has traditionally avoided using U.S. forces stationed in South Korea for operations elsewhere, both due to the North Korean threat and to South Korean political concerns.

The balance of forces on the Korean Peninsula also currently favors South Korea, reducing the necessity of a large ready U.S. presence. That balance was an important consideration in U.S. President Richard Nixon’s decision to reduce forces in South Korea in 1971, desiring for Seoul to carry more of the burden for its own national defense. A revision of U.S. intelligence estimates of North Korean strength also played a role in reversing President Jimmy Carter’s decision to further reduce forces in South Korea less than a decade later.

North Korean capabilities no longer require the U.S. force posture currently configured in South Korea as well. While North Korea has significantly improved its missile and rocket capabilities, the effective counter is not necessarily more forces open the ground, but rather improved missile defense capabilities and the development of South Korean counter-strike capabilities. South Korea has been constrained in the latter for decades by the United States for fear of triggering a war with North Korea that would lock Washington into conflict. But Washington recently agreed to allow Seoul to develop solid-fuel rockets and has expanded its acceptable payload size. South Korea has also recently identified ground and air-launch missiles as a key component of its force development, along with local missile defense. Given the developments in the South Korean military and the situation in North Korea, it is unlikely that Pyongyang would see a reduction of U.S forces in South Korea as an invitation to roll tanks south.

The Case Against Restructuring

But there are also valid arguments against a U.S. withdrawal from South Korea, including:

Preserving a key, amphibious entry point to Asia in the case of a U.S.-China conflict. South Korea’s most concrete value to the U.S. defense posture is perhaps its role as an amphibious bridge between the maritime world and the Asian continent. Strategic competition between the United States and China plays out where the maritime power of the United States meets the continental power of China. Korea has long been the bridge between maritime Japan and continental China, for culture as well as warfare — serving as the launching point for the Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century, the Japanese attempted invasion of China in the 16th century, and the Japanese imperial invasion of Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century. The United States is strengthening military ties with other amphibious points around the Chinese periphery, including Vietnam and India. And while South Korea may be vulnerable due to its lack of strategic depth, its proximity to the Chinese north fleet and Beijing also makes it a key strategic point.


It’s unlikely North Korea would see a reduction of U.S forces as an invitation to roll tanks south.


Maintaining the longstanding U.S.-South Korea relationship. In both South Korea and the United States, support of a continued robust U.S. force presence is often based on the two countries’ 70-year military partnership. U.S. forces fought in Korea, Korean forces fought alongside the United States in Vietnam, and the two continue to train together.

Reassuring other allies of the United States’ commitment to the region. A robust presence of U.S. forces in South Korea also serves as a consistent reminder to North Korea, and perhaps China, of a U.S. commitment to protect its democratic allies in the region. Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea clearly took this to heart, and its military development has shifted from a focus on overwhelming the South Korean ground forces to a missile, rocket and cyber-heavy emphasis that targets the U.S. forces and interests. Countering these capabilities requires a nearby U.S. presence, just as countering Russian threats or Iran’s missile and nuclear developments require U.S. military operations across Europe and the Middle East, respectively.

A reduction of forces could signal that, despite its Pacific Defense Initiative, the United States is more concerned with keeping competition and conflict bottled up in Asian waters far from U.S. shores, rather than strengthening and defending its allies and partners. Despite hosting more U.S. troops, Japan is particularly sensitive to any changes to the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea, which helps buffer it from Asian conflict. Japan has been very vocal each time a major revision to U.S. forces in South Korea has been contemplated, as a complete withdrawal would leave Japan the frontline. And while Tokyo has gone far to reinterpret its pacifist constitution, there is still strong political and social sentiment against Japan’s role as a regional belligerent.

Current Dynamics Facilitate Restructuring

The United States is not going to simply abandon South Korea, but will instead continue to reshape its overseas force posture — reducing singular large basing in favor of more flexible and dispersed permeant and rotational presence, while allowing for the concentration of forces as needed, rather than as dictated by existing large basing. With the U.S. presidential election less than three months away, there is pressure on Trump to take action on issues it wants to see accomplished before a potential change of government, and reducing U.S. forces abroad has been a key issue from the start of his administration.

With South Korea currently under a liberal government, and seeking to heal rifts with North Korea while strengthening its own national defense capabilities and industry, a tailored reduction of U.S. forces may not meet significant resistance from Seoul, though it would certainly play into the deadlock over cost-sharing. While always a contentious issue, there may now well be an alignment of factors that make this the time for the United States to start once again downsizing its military presence in South Korea.


Rodger Baker is the Senior VP of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor. He leads Stratfor’s strategic thinking on global issues and future trends.

The Malay Annals: History Describes the Present

The Malay Annals, or “Sejarah Melayu” in Malay, are a romanticized history on the rise and fall of the Malaccan Sultanate interspersed with mythical and fantastical elements. To put the text in historical context, it was composed approximately a century after the fall of the Malaccan sultanate, marking the end of the sultanate’s undisputed rule over both sides of the Strait of Malacca. The oldest version is dated approximately two centuries after the end of the Ming Dynasty’s short-lived maritime Pax Sinica that extended from East Asia to the tip of the Indian sub-continent.

Within its text are key passages describing the Malay worldview of their relationship with the Sinic empires, specifically the Ming dynasty. The interactions cited within afford a remarkably contemporary frame of Malaysia’s current foreign policy towards China, its status as regional power and an emerging superpower, as well as Beijing’s claims towards almost the entirety of South China Sea. Selected texts from the Malay Annals reproduced in this article are drawn from Dr. John Leyden’s translation published in 1821 and are presented in the order as they appear in the Leyden manuscript.

“Sit atop the mountain and watch the tigers fight” – Chinese saying


Then, it was reported in the land of China, that Raja Suran was advancing against them with an innumerable army, and had arrived at the country of Tamsak. The raja of China was alarmed at hearing this intelligence, and said to his mantris and chieftains, “If Kling Raja approach, the country will be inevitably ruined; what method do you advise to prevent his approach?” Then, a sagacious mantri of China said, “Lord of the world, your slave will fall on a device.”


King Suran is described in the text as a true descendant of Alexander the Great. At this point, there is no mention yet of the Malays or Malay lands, only that King Suran set forth from India intending to conquer China. The king of China, upon learning of King Suran’s approach, appreciated this new danger and consulted with his court. One of his ministers contrived a plan to deceive King Suran regarding the distance of China from India with the use of rusty needles and aging sailors. The ruse succeeded in deterring King Suran from invading China.

What is striking is that the Malaccan sultanate perceived the need for another great power to balance and counter the hegemony of the Ming dynasty. When the Trump administration recently announced that the U.S. explicitly considers the PRC’s territorial claims in South China Sea as illegal, it merely elicited a decidedly neutral statement couched in non-committal language from Malaysia. Malaysia’s foreign minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, stated, “Malaysia looks forward to continuing the discussions to conclude an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that would encompass elements which reflect the rights and interests of all parties.”

It should be noted that Malaysia conducts, with little to no domestic fanfare, far more bilateral military exercises of substance with the U.S. than with PRC. A recent standoff between China’s state-owned and military vessels with a Malaysian-chartered Panamanian-flagged drillship and several U.S. Navy ships did not even make the local news cycle in Malaysia. In other words, while Malaysia may loudly proclaim strict neutrality or assign tensions solely to ambitions of superpowers, at best, Putrajaya, the seat of Malaysia’s federal-level government ministries, quietly aspires for U.S. alone to do the heavy lifting. At worst, it hopes that an American presence gives considerable pause to China’s assertive ambitions, sans a hint of Malaysian participation.

“That’s the way the cookie crumbles” – American saying


Then the raja of China sent to Palembang, to Raja Sangsapurba ten prows, to ask his daughter in marriage. They brought with them as presents three bahars of gold, and a great quantity of articles of China. Along with them one hundred male Chinese slaves, and a young Chinese of noble birth; a hundred female Chineses; all to convey the raja’s letter to Sangsapurba. They reached Palembang, and delivered the letter of the raja of China, in the most respectful manner, in the hall of audience.


King Sangsapurba is represented by the Malay Annals as the first Malay king who also laid claim as a direct descendant of Alexander the Great. His appearance in the Annals suggests that the Malays drew heavily from Hindu cosmology (Shiva possibly) in that he was hinted as a sort of demi-god, being deigned to descend from the heavens in order to rule over the Malays. Upon receiving the proposal for the hand of his daughter from the king of China, Sangsapurba consulted with his retinue. They concurred that Palembang, Sangsapurba’s capital, would be at great risk should the proposal be refused and, at the same time, counseled that there was no greater king than the king of China.

While there are historical accounts of Chinese vessels operating around Malay territory for centuries, it would be Zheng He’s famous treasure fleets that would leave an indelible mark and distinct impression on the Malaccan sultanate. The above passage informs readers that the sultanate was more than aware of the proximity of the Chinese mainland to Malacca. Additionally, with the appearance of several large multi-masted ships crewed by hundreds, the Malaccan sultanate understood that the fiat of the Ming Dynasty would not, and could not, be denied. Thus, the Ming dynasty records duly noted visits by Parameswara, the founder of the Malaccan sultanate, and later of his successor, to the Ming capital to receive gifts from the Ming emperor as acknowledgment of their legitimacy as rulers of the Malacca city-state.

Translated today, Malaysia would unlikely initiate or risk direct action to contest incursions by China’s Coast Guard or the People’s Liberation Army Navy into Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone. Unlike Vietnam, which could fall back on a long history of resisting Chinese invasion and occupation to rally its people in the face of overwhelming numbers and odds, Putrajaya seems to accept that it would likely be fruitless to contest regular incursions by China. Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, then speaking as prime minister, affirmed the long-held precept in late 2019 during an interview discussing China’s maritime claims, saying, “We watch what they are doing, we report what they are doing, but we do not chase them away or try to be aggressive.”

“The measure of clothing against yourself” – Malay saying


The sago was then brought before the raja, and the raja of China asked how it was made. Tun Parapati Puti replied that it was made by rolling it up into grains, and that the raja of Malacca had sent him a grain for every person in his dominions, till the prahu had been loaded, for so great is the number of the subjects of our raja that it is impossible to count them. The raja of China said, “of a truth the raja of Malacca is a powerful raja, his subjects are in truth very numerous, and no wise inferior to mine. It will be very proper for me to connect myself with him.”


The Malaccan sultanate would not have easily accepted the conceit of being in the thrall of the Ming dynasty. The above passage indicates that the sultanate sought a level footing as either an equal or a near-peer to the Ming dynasty. It may have likely been aimed at placating the domestic audiences within the palace, seeing that as it was successive Malaccan rulers that regularly paid court to the Ming emperor rather than the other way around. Unsurprisingly, the above passage cites the marriage of the “Ming princess” Han Li-Po to Sultan Mansur Shah of Malacca as a mark of high esteem by the king of China.

The annals also describe an unusual event which further buttresses the Sultanate’s desire for equality or near-peer status. Shortly after the above passage, the text reveals that the king of China was “seized with an itch of the whole body”. Upon consultation, it was discovered that this itch could only be cured by “drinking the water which has washed the feet and face of the raja of Malacca.” An emissary was dispatched from China to the Malaccan court to apply for said healing waters. The bodily itch subsided after it was applied as prescribed. The king of China pledged that the king of Malacca would no longer be required to pay obeisance at the Chinese court thanks to this miraculous cure. In this, the third and final leg of Malaysia’s diplomatic stance towards China is revealed.

So long as China is willing to acknowledge or publicly confer a near-peer status to Malaysia, “give face”, and support inconsequential initiatives sponsored by Putrajaya, the latter will not rock the boat. Former Malaysian foreign minister, Saifuddin Abdullah, reiterated the point in late 2019, citing that bilateral ties were that of “friendship based on civilization”. It is not a new stance and was first iterated by Malaysia’s second prime minister Tun Razak in 1974, who followed in the wake of Nixon’s ground-breaking visit in 1972, by stating Malaysia’s ancient ties with China. On a more cautionary note, this story from the Malay Annals may not bode well for Malaysia’s Sinic minority should future events transpire that are detrimental towards Malaysia’s maritime claims.

“It’s the same ol’, same ol’ situation” – Motley Crue

To place the historical context of the Malay Annals in modern perspective, at the peak of Pax Sinica under the Ming dynasty, Zheng He’s treasure fleet carried out counterpiracy operations near Palembang, Sumatra, and instituted regime change in Colombo, present-day Sri Lanka. Just as it was then and today, a superpower’s reach that meddled in regional politics and exuding a somewhat condescending attitude would have likely triggered internal resentments that needed to be addressed or tamped down in favor of expediently and profitably managing their kingdoms’ generally unequal relationship with the Ming dynasty. The encounter between the Ming dynasty and Malaccan sultanate resulted in a foreign policy primer encapsulated by these key passages in a classical Malay text that is still assiduously cultivated by modern-day Malaysian diplomats and public officials.


Teoh Jit Khiam works in private practice. He writes on topics concerning Asian politics and history.

What the End of One Country, Two Systems Means for Hong Kong, Taiwan and the World

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


HIGHLIGHTS

  • Beijing’s decision to impose a long-delayed security law on Hong Kong reflects the mainland’s growing concern with challenges to national unity.
  • Hong Kong will face an acceleration of reintegration, and a more rapid erosion of its special status, while Taiwan will face increased economic and military pressure from the mainland.
  • China will use its political, economic and, if need be, military might to assert its sovereignty over its periphery, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Beijing’s decision to impose a long-delayed security law on Hong Kong reflects the mainland’s growing concern with challenges to national unity ahead of next year’s 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. But it is more immediately driven by the rising violence in Hong Kong and the political evolution in Taiwan. Despite international criticism, China will strengthen efforts to fully integrate Hong Kong and to further isolate Taiwan internationally.

The issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan are intimately linked for Beijing. Hong Kong was intended to be a model of effective unification under one country, two systems, to entice Taiwan to rejoin the motherland and bring to fruition the post-World War II rebuilding of China. But Hong Kong’s integration has grown increasingly fractious over the past decade, and this has reinforced sentiment in Taiwan that reintegration with China would see a similar erosion of Taiwan’s political and social structures.

With Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen’s reelection in January, driven in part by the Hong Kong protests, Beijing is aware that there is little support left in Taiwan for reintegration with the mainland. Rather, Taiwanese politics now splits between pro-status quo and pro-independence ideas. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Taiwan’s international status back to the forefront, with countries from the United States to Australia arguing in favor of increasing Taiwanese participation in International forums like the World Health Organization, something strenuously objected to by Beijing.


The issues of Hong Kong and Taiwan are intimately linked for Beijing: Hong Kong was intended to be a model of effective unification to entice Taiwan to rejoin the motherland.


The 2019 protesters in Hong Kong rallied around five key demands, essentially insisting on self-determination for Hong Kong. This was clearly something on which Beijing would not yield. As protests continued, elements within the movement grew more violent, with some using improvised explosives, something Beijing fears Hong Kong security forces cannot fully manage. The combination of the college break and the social restrictions implemented due to the COVID-19 crisis eased the protests, but the Chinese National People’s Congress’ decision to take up the security law reignited them. While these protests were small, they demonstrated a growing willingness to challenge Hong Kong’s restrictions on gatherings and foreshadowed another summer of regular protest activity leading up to legislative elections in September.

The security law was supposed to be something Hong Kong itself passed following the 1997 handover from the United Kingdom, but domestic opposition delayed concrete action. Beijing has now stepped in to provide the legal tools to counter separatism, terrorism or intentional economic upheaval. The law will also provide a mechanism for Chinese agencies to operate directly in Hong Kong. The timing coincides with a delayed vote in Hong Kong later this week on a bill that would outlaw parodying or disrespecting the Chinese national anthem, another measure generating ire among Hong Kong protesters.

In the past year, China has grown more assertive in its international diplomacy, lashing out at anything it considers a challenge to Chinese national unity or criticism of Chinese actions. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated already-tense exchanges between China and several Western countries, but despite criticism and threats of political and economic sanctions, Beijing remains undeterred. The 100th anniversary of the CCP is an important piece of China’s narrative to reinforce Chinese nationalism and challenge what it sees as an outdated and unfair Western world order.

With rising international efforts to constrain China’s economic and political rise, Beijing cannot allow Hong Kong, a Chinese city, to remain a challenge to central authority. The politics of one country, two systems no longer resonate, and leaving Hong Kong to its own devices no longer aids China’s Taiwan policy. For Hong Kong, this means an acceleration of reintegration, and a more rapid erosion of special status — something that will likely trigger a further acceleration of corporate diversification or relocation from Hong Kong, challenging its status as a financial center. For Taiwan, it means increased economic and military pressure from the mainland. And for the world, it means China will use its political, economic and, if need be, military might to assert its sovereignty over its periphery, including Taiwan and the South China Sea.


Rodger Baker is the Senior VP of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor. He leads Stratfor’s strategic thinking on global issues and future trends.

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