WASHINGTON — The U.S. defense secretary said Tuesday he has not issued orders to remove American forces from South Korea, but he did leave the door open for such a move in the future.
Mark Esper, speaking at an event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, also said America remains steadfast in its support of Taiwan.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon was drawing up plans to reduce the U.S. presence in South Korea below the current level of 28,500 personnel. A similar situation, which played out earlier this year, has resulted in a planned removal of 9,500 American troops from Germany.
President Donald Trump first raised the idea of moving troops out of South Korea during his 2016 campaign for president, and the idea has percolated throughout his time in office. As with other spots around the globe, Trump has expressed a desire to see South Korea pay more to house troops and has threatened to remove forces if Seoul does not do so. The two countries are in ongoing negotiations, with South Korea arguing that its arms procurement from American companies should be factored into its accounting.
“I’ve issued no orders to withdraw forces from the Korean Peninsula,” Esper said. “I will say, though, when I took office, I was clear that I was going to implement the National Defense Strategy. Part and parcel of that means looking at every geographic combatant command and making sure that we are optimized and positioned as well as possible to accomplish — not just fulfill — the NDS, but also making sure the regional missions we’ve tasked are there.”
“So we will continue to look at the adjustments, at every command we have in every theater, to make sure we are optimizing our forces,” the secretary added, before bringing up a desire to pursue more “rotational force deployments” around the globe.
That last point fits into a theme Esper and Jim Mattis, his predecessor as secretary, have both pushed in recent years — that the department is better served by having forces rotating in and out of countries instead of permanently based there, under a concept called “dynamic force employment.” Allies and partner nations, including in South Korea, largely prefer having a permanent American presence in their countries.
What about Taiwan?
Another ally in the region looking nervously toward Washington is Taiwan. The island nation has long been in Beijing’s crosshairs, but China’s recent crackdown in Hong Kong has led to speculation that it may look to move on Taiwan more quickly than previously expected.
Esper said the administration “remains committed” to Taiwan, even as the actions from Beijing become “more aggressive” toward its neighbor.
“We’ve seen [China] build up their military, we’ve seen them be more assertive, they got hundreds, if not over a thousand, missiles aimed at Taiwan. And we’ve seen President [Xi Jinping] and his party really take this to a new level,” Esper said. “So we remain committed to regional peace and security. We will live up to our commitments to Taiwan, which is all in the interest of a secure and stable region, if you will.”
He said that commitment includes potential future arms sales, the most recent of which led to China announcing it would sanction American defense company Lockheed Martin.
The secretary also said he hoped to travel to China before the end of the year “in order to enhance cooperation on areas of common interest, establish the systems necessary for crisis communications, and reinforce our intentions to openly compete in the international system in which we all belong.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.