September 06, 2021 13:19
The U.S.' next defense bill for fiscal year 2022 drops a commitment to keeping troop numbers in Korea at the current level.
The bill, passed by the House Committee on Armed Services before ratification last week, will not immediately affect the 28,500-strong U.S. Forces Korea, but leaves the way open for slashing numbers if that is deemed necessary.
The USFK's role could also be expanded from a mere presence here to deter North Korea to a key force in the U.S.' new cold war against China.
The National Defense Authorization Act previously contained a clause aimed at preventing then-U.S. President Donald Trump from reducing troop numbers below the current level, but it has been dropped in the latest revision.
But the U.S government was keen to dispel worries that troop numbers will drop significantly. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said, "The president, as he has said repeatedly, has no intention of drawing down our forces from South Korea or from Europe."
Committee Chairman Adam Smith said, "We don't need [the clause] while President Biden is in the White House."
Instead, the NDAA supports the U.S. troop presence here in general terms "to deter aggression against the U.S., and its allies and partners."
"This suggests that the USFK's role will be expanded from a mere presence for deterrence of North Korea to a key force to maintain order in the Indo-Pacific region," said Shin Beom-chul at the Research Institute for Economy and Society. "It also means that the U.S. will use the USFK as a front-line beachhead to contain China."
The U.S. has long been trying to give the U.S. Forces Korea more "strategic flexibility" in the Indo-Pacific region. The revision now requires the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command to consult with the commanders of the USFK and Special Operations Command before reporting on intelligence-gathering capabilities and activities in the USFK's areas of operations.
The committee also flagged South Korea as a potential member of the "Five Eyes" intelligence-sharing alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.K. and the U.S. to contain China. Other potential members are Germany, Japan and India.
There also is speculation that the USFK will ask the South Korean military to engage in more joint drills than before. After recent combined exercises, USFK Commander Gen. Paul LaCamera said, "I know we can achieve more."
A government official here said, "There's a possibility that Washington will demand more participation in drills or put more pressure on us to join the Quad" or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal anti-China alliance that includes Australia, Japan and India.
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