Security Brief

Trump Presses Japan to Pay Up for U.S. Troops

The move comes as North Korea rejects Washington’s latest overtures to resume nuclear talks.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while speaking to Japanese and U.S. troops aboard a helicopter carrier on May 28 in Yokosuka, Japan.
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while speaking to Japanese and U.S. troops aboard a helicopter carrier on May 28 in Yokosuka, Japan. Athit Perawongmetha - Pool/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Trump demands that Japan quadruple its payments for U.S. troop presence, Russia cements its power in northeastern Syria with a new helicopter base, and protests erupt in Iran over a hike in fuel costs.

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Trump Squeezes Japan for Billions More for U.S. Troops

Since U.S. President Donald Trump came into office, he has repeatedly bashed NATO allies for not spending enough on defense, prompting Germany and others to pony up additional money for their armed forces. Now, Trump has a new target for his pressure campaign: two of the United States’ closest Pacific allies.

During a July visit, then-National Security Advisor John Bolton relayed a message to Japan and South Korea, Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer report: Trump wants you to spend billions of dollars more per year to offset the cost to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the region. Bolton asked Tokyo for a 300 percent increase in its yearly payment, from $2 billion to $8 billion, and Seoul for a 400 percent increase, from $1 billion to $5 billion.

Esper and Milley turn up the heat in Seoul. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley reiterated the demand on Seoul last week in separate trips to the Korean peninsula. Esper said Friday that South Korea “is a wealthy country and could and should pay more to help offset the cost of defense,” and Milley echoed those comments to reporters traveling with him.

Negotiations resume. On Monday South Korean and U.S. officials met to hash out their differences, resuming talks over the so-called “special measures agreement” even as shocked protesters accused Washington of “highway robbery.” South Korea’s special measures agreement with Washington expires this year, but Japan has until March 2021 to negotiate its own bilateral arrangement.

North Korea nukes loom. Trump’s demand that its Pacific allies pay more comes as talks stall over North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Over the weekend, Trump called on North Korean leader Kim Jung Un to “act quickly” and hinted at another meeting, but Pyongyang seemed to reject his overtures. A senior North Korean official said Monday that Pyongyang is not interested in meaningless talks with Washington just so Trump has something “to boast of.”


What We’re Watching 

Russia’s footprint in Syria. Just weeks after U.S. special forces began withdrawing from northeastern Syria and Russian and Syrian troops took their place, Moscow has established a helicopter base in the Kurdish-held border city of Qamishli. While Trump partially reversed his abrupt decision to pull all U.S. troops out of the region—sending in National Guard troops and tanks to Deir Ezzor to guard the rich oil fields there as special forces withdraw—the new Russian base reflects a shift in the regional balance of power. But Moscow’s stepped-up military presence could be intended more to protect Syria from Turkey than to compete with the United States.

Protests rock Iran. Protests flared in cities across Iran throughout the weekend after the government announced a 50 percent increase in fuel costs. The price hike is partly a response to the country’s precarious economic situation caused by renewed U.S. sanctions, and the government has said the additional revenue will be used to pay for low income housing. Although Iran has some of the lowest fuel costs in the world, the price increase is dramatic, and it is seen as part of a gradual decline in the country’s economic fortunes. Clashes with police have left at least 12 people dead, and Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli said that law enforcement will soon have “no choice” but to take direct action if the unrest does not subside. This is the second round of wide-scale protests to hit Iran in two years, suggesting growing dissatisfaction with the regime of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

A new Chilean constitution? After weeks of anti-government demonstrations in Chile, lawmakers have agreed to a referendum on the country’s Pinochet-era constitution. The mass protests began as a response to an increase in subway fares but grew into a movement against economic inequality. The current constitution, enacted in 1980 under the dictator Augusto Pinochet, prioritizes a market-driven economic model and leaves little for social services like healthcare and education. Chilean voters will decide in April 2020 if they want a new constitution. It will also determine how the new constitution would be drafted. The move shows a remarkable degree of responsiveness on the part of President Sebastián Piñera, but protesters remain in the streets.


Quote of the Week

“The tragedy of pardoning [former Lt. Clint] Lorance isn’t that he will be released from prison—I’ve found room for compassion there. The tragedy is that people will hail him as a hero, and he is not a hero. He ordered those murders. He lied about them.”

—Patrick Swanson, a former U.S. Army captain, speaking to the New York Times about Trump’s decision to overrule military leaders and pardon Lorance, convicted in 2013 of murdering two civilians in Afghanistan, and two other service members who have been accused or convicted of war crimes. 


Foreign Policy Recommends

Liberalization with a price. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s liberal push came under intense criticism after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but that hasn’t stopped the leader from pursuing his liberalization policies, Haaretz reports. One can now find bars and nightclubs dotting urban centers (serving non-alcoholic beverages), with tourists dancing to Western music and taking selfies. As always, liberalization comes with a price: Anyone who criticizes the new Entertainment Agency overseeing this change will face a fierce rebuke from the government.


World on Fire. Youth protests are flaring across the world, from Hong Kong to the Middle East to the Americas. But what links these movements, and what kind of impact will they have?

Join FP’s editor in chief Jonathan Tepperman and a panel of notable specialists on Tuesday, Nov. 19, for a live discussion of the motivations and implications of the rising wave of street demonstrations. Register here to participate.


Odds and Ends

“West Point Mafia.” Several members of West Point’s class of 1986, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, have taken highly influential roles in President Donald Trump’s cabinet. Much of the class’s geopolitical outlook was shaped by the Cold War, expertise that is suddenly relevant again in an era of renewed great power competition with Russia and China. Now, as the impeachment inquiry comes down hard on Trump, the so-called West Point Mafia’s loyalty to the president is being severely tested.


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Dan Haverty contributed to this report. 

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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