South Korea's Role Key in Advancing Indo-Pacific Vision

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Oct. 01, 2019) -- Competing, deterring and winning in the face of revisionist competitors such as China and Russia won't be easy, the undersecretary of defense for policy said.

John C. Rood said that while the U.S. vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region is inclusive and promotes principles shared by many nations, it's not a vision that all nations share. Rood, spoke and served as the chief U.S. delegate yesterday during an event in Washington sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the South Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo.

To maintain and build upon values that benefit all nations, the United States must grow a more lethal joint force as well as a more robust constellation of allies and partners, Rood said, adding that the strengthening of regional alliances will help deter bad behavior and keep peace.

The U.S.-South Korean alliance is central to efforts to accomplish that, Rood said. "[South Korea] is a defense partner that is trusted across the region, and as we look beyond Northeast Asia to the new challenges of the future, we expect South Korea to continue to be a source of stability and prosperity."

The U.S.-South Korea relationship has strengthened, Rood said, noting that South Korea has gone from a net security recipient to a net security provider.

Rood pointed to several examples of the strong, and growing relationship between South Korea and the United States. One example, he said, is the large number of American forces the South Koreans host on the Korean Peninsula. About 28,500 U.S. military personnel and their families work and live in South Korea, many on U.S. Army Garrison Humphreys, which Rood said is the largest U.S. overseas military facility.

Additionally, he said, the United States and South Korea have made progress to expedite the fulfillment of the agreed-upon conditions required to transition wartime operational control from the United States to South Korea.

"The effort is to transfer operational control, in a crisis, in war, with one of the largest armies in the world from the United States to our Korean partners," Rood said. "That's a very substantial activity where our combined command will be essential to execute that. These are things that we want to be able to exercise and do under the most stressing situations. And lives depend on the success of that endeavor, and we take it incredibly seriously, and so do our South Korean allies."

South Korea also is doing its part to contribute to its own security, Rood said, having been in the top 20 nations for U.S. foreign military sales for nearly two decades, including more than $19 billion over the last 10 years. South Korea approved an 8.2% increase in its defense budget last year, he added, allowing further advancements in defense modernization and preparing for that operational wartime control being transitioned to its forces.

In preparation for that transition, Rood said, the United States continues to encourage South Korea to make further investments, particularly in the ability to counter North Korea's missile and nuclear threats.

South Korea will host an upcoming commemorative joint summit with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the inaugural Korea-Mekong Summit, the undersecretary noted.

Rood also discussed the trilateral relationship among the United States, South Korea and Japan. Political and social conflict between the two Pacific nations has upset that relationship, he acknowledged, but he added that what they have in common is more important than their differences.

"They have shared values. They have committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific based on a rules-based international order," he said. "Both understand the long-term risks of a rising China, and both understand the importance of standing up for international norms on intellectual property, on prevention of cyber theft, on the concerns that we have about China aggressively and opaquely modernizing their military, while also trying to change the geopolitical status through coercive diplomacy."

Still, friction between South Korea and Japan has been higher than in recent years, Rood said. "What should be the U.S. role? Encouraging our true friends and allies here to try to work out some of the issues," he added. "These are not easy things, I know, having heard from both parties, ... but that being said, it's worth it."

The U.S. must point to "the big picture," and to the concerns all three nations share, he said, and the United States encourages South Korea to recommit to and renew its General Security of Military Information Agreement with Japan. "We call on both countries to participate in meaningful dialogue to address their differences," Rood said.