Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Trump's Isolationism

Wonsan hit by US air force, Korean War.
Donald Trump has suggested pulling US troops from South Korea and Japan, saying America can no longer afford to look after other nations' defense for them.

I agree with him on at least half of that. I spent seven years in South Korea. To me, the US deployment there makes no sense, and is probably on the whole hurting US interests.

First, it makes less than no military sense. The US has 28,500 troops in South Korea. This is a militarily insignificant number. By contrast, North Korea has 700,000 men under arms; South Korea has 625,000. Contrary to Trump's claims, South Korea is doing its utmost in its own defense; it could probably stop the North cold on its own if it ever came to that. On the other hand, if South Korea cannot defend itself against the North, the few American troops are not going to make much difference.

So why are they there? The official explanation is that they are a “tripwire.” They are a guarantee that, if war comes on the Korean peninsula, the US will get involved.

Which, put another way, is to say that they are there as hostages.

Chinese forces cross the Yalu.

First, this is no way to treat soldiers. Second, a land war in East Asia does not seem to be a terribly clever idea for an essentially naval power like the US. You'd think Vietnam would have taught that lesson, if Korea hadn't. Especially if, as last time, China gets involved. It gives all the advantages to China, with their huge population and ability to defend in depth. It throws away the US's prime advantage, its technological edge. It would be far better off militarily keeping it a naval or air war, from secure bases. For the sake of the US's own interests, in other words, it would be better to retain the option to stay out. This ought to be the prime political calculation. Suicide is not noble. If they are to get in, their strategic interests and fighting ability would be best served by attacking from offshore, from defensible bases in Japan or Okinawa. Or even Guam.

At the same time, speaking of politics, Korea is by culture and tradition one of the most xenophobic nations on Earth. They do not take well to having foreign troops on their soil. The US military presence causes a lot of hard feelings and anti-American sentiments. It also is a great help to North Korean propaganda. Politically as much as militarily, the deployment seems to me a net loss for the US.

In 1992, the US pulled their troops out of the Philippines, abandoning the huge Subic Bay naval station and Clark Air Force Base, after the Philippine senate refused to endorse a new treaty. Most Filipinos now regret this, especially given China's recent adventurism in the Spratley and Paracel Islands, and the Philippine government is now reduced to begging the Americans to return

US Air Force hits rail yards, Korean War.

In a similar fashion, I can see US-South Korean relations quickly improving if the Americans pulled their troops out. You never miss the water until the well runs dry.

Maybe they should send them all back to Subic Bay, where they are now welcome, and where the US navy would be well-placed to counter Chinese movements in the South China Sea.

Or maybe Trump is more generally right: a lot of other nations are freeloading off the US's military outlays, notably including Canada, and it is time to let them grow up and manage their own affairs.

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