U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper says he has "issued no orders to withdraw from the Korean peninsula," while also sounding the alarm on Chinese "bad behavior" that he says has picked up since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Speaking about Asia from the Pentagon, Esper on Tuesday left open the possibility of a future reduction of troops in South Korea, saying the Pentagon will continue to look at potential force size adjustments at every command, in every theater, to make sure it is optimizing its forces.
"I continue to want to pursue more rotational forces, force deployments into theaters, because it gives us, the United States, greater strategic flexibility in terms of responding to challenges around the globe," the defense secretary said during a virtual event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Pentagon was drawing up plans to reduce its forces in South Korea below the current number of 28,500 personnel, as the two countries remain at an impasse over President Donald Trump’s demand that Seoul greatly increase how much it pays for U.S. troops stationed in the country.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and defense expert at the Brookings Institution, says he disagrees with the use of more U.S. rotational deployments on the Korean peninsula because they “wear out a small force.”
“Better to signal resoluteness, and reduce the burden on people, with more stable and permanent stationing abroad, especially in countries with good amenities and qualities of life,” O’Hanlon said, citing Germany, South Korea and Poland as great examples.
Chinese ‘bad behavior” and hints of a potential visit
On China, Esper on Tuesday slammed recent Chinese military “bad behavior” that has raised concerns across the region.
“We've seen it pick up in the last six months since the COVID-19 hit,” he said, referring to the disease caused by the global coronavirus pandemic.
Esper said he hopes to visit China for the first time as secretary before the end of the year, although the Pentagon did not provide further details on a potential visit.
The defense secretary called out China for "regularly disrespecting rights of other nations," pointing to a recent large-scale offensive exercise simulating the seizure of a Taiwanese island as “a destabilizing activity that significantly increases the risk of miscalculation.”
He also slammed China for its land reclamation and continued military exercises around disputed land features in the
Sea, calling the efforts “patently inconsistent” with international law and urging other nations across the globe to help stand up to counter Chinese behavior.
“If we're not careful, we'll find ourselves in a situation where China is calling the shots, and we have a completely different international order or at least regional order. That puts China at the top and really is based on Chinese values, and I don't think those are things that any of us want to want to see happen in the long run,” Esper said.
For its part, Beijing says Washington has no say in the matter and is acting as a “a troublemaker and a disruptor of regional stability.”
“The United States is not a country involved in the regional territorial disputes, but it continues to interfere and keeps flexing military muscles in the region,” read a July 14 statement from the Chinese Embassy in Washington. “It’s stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.”
Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says Beijing seeks to expel the U.S. from the region in order to “control and dominate China’s weaker neighbors.”
“The U.S. must act urgently with its allies and partners to address the increasingly unfavorable military balance of power, to make clear to Beijing that the costs of attempting to achieve its political objectives with military force are unacceptably high,” said Bowman.
Earlier this month two U.S. aircraft carriers, the USS Nimitz and the USS Ronald Reagan, conducted joint operations to demonstrate freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where territorial disputes have flared between China and its smaller neighbors.
The deployment was the first time the U.S. has conducted dual carrier operations since 2012.
Last year, the U.S. military conducted more freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea than in any year since it began these types of operations in 2015, as a means of more aggressively challenging Chinese territorial claims there.
China considers much of the sea its territory — overlapping with the territorial claims of other nations — and has created hundreds of hectares of artificial islands to bolster its territorial claims. The U.S. frequently conducts freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to dispute China's claims and to promote free passage through international waters that carry about half the world's merchant fleet tonnage, worth trillions of dollars each year.
Lin Yang contributed to this report.