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Congress can jumpstart Biden administration policy toward key Asian allies

Congress can jumpstart Biden administration policy toward key Asian allies
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Since taking office, President BidenJoe BidenMellman: Trump voters cling to 2020 tale FDA authorizes another batch of J&J vaccine Cotton warns of China collecting athletes' DNA at 2022 Olympics MORE has sought to assure his South Korean and Japanese counterparts about the enduring credibility of America’s presence and commitment to the Indo-Pacific. But, although the Biden team’s early overtures may come as a relief for alliance managers in Seoul and Tokyo who fretted over President TrumpDonald TrumpKushner lands book deal, slated for release in 2022 Biden moves to undo Trump trade legacy with EU deal Progressives rave over Harrison's start at DNC MORE’s more transactional and non-reciprocating style of engagement, it remains too early to chart specific lines of effort by the new administration. How, in substance, Biden will differentiate his Indo-Pacific policy from that of his predecessor still remains to be seen.

One unexpected result of the Trump era, however, has been Congress’s expansion of oversight over White House foreign policymaking in the fiscal year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Ratified on Jan. 1 with broad bipartisan support, the NDAA placed new limits on executive control over three levers of alliance management that Trump abused or upended — namely, burden-sharing negotiations, troop-level commitments and technology export controls. By attempting to inoculate alliance relations against further executive disruption in these areas, the NDAA provisions seek to reassure U.S. allies that the new administration’s actions will be benchmarked against a more durable congressionally-mandated standard from here on out. Still, Congress could go further in each of these areas.

First, on burden-sharing, Trump’s aggressive renegotiation of Special Measures Agreements (SMA) administering allied defense spending for U.S. forces in South Korea and Japan elicited a stern rebuttal from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike who criticized his transactionalism. Though the latest NDAA did not broach the SMA issue, a Senate midterm review of the FY20 NDAA commended Seoul for its handling of the 2019 negotiations and urged subsequent talks to proceed “with due consideration of the [Republic of Korea]’s significant contributions.”

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The Biden administration’s resolve to deliver a “mutually acceptable agreement in the spirit of the [U.S.-ROK] alliance” has broad support among lawmakers. But while Biden’s Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks assured during her Senate confirmation hearing that a determination of “strategic value” would be afforded greater consideration in future talks over allied defense spending, it's unclear how the administration will proceed on this critical but delicate matter.

With most South Koreans and Japanese responding negatively to Trump’s SMA demands, Biden’s first order of business will be restoring public confidence that his administration will faithfully consider their interests as well as its own. But at this time, both Korean and Japanese security experts foresee the U.S. will continue to grapple with fiscal pressures that limit its military spending. As the Biden team balances numerous competing priorities and the incentives for offshoring responsibilities to allies continue to grow, Congress will play an important role in keeping the administration honest about its commitments regarding the SMA.

Second, on troop-level commitments, Section 1258 of the recent NDAA seeks to strengthen the U.S. forward presence on the Korean Peninsula, while deterring future attempts at replicating Trump’s threats to withdraw U.S. forces. It does this by prohibiting force reductions below 28,500 without prior consultation with Tokyo and Seoul, and instituting a mandatory 90-day notice to Congress.

This further assurance came, however, months after a joint statement at the annual ROK-U.S. Security Consultative Meeting neglected for the first time since 2008 to include a key phrase –– “maintain the current level of U.S. military personnel in the ROK.” At the time, Seoul’s defense ministry blamed the omission on Washington’s efforts to achieve “greater strategic flexibility,” in accordance with the U.S. military’s focus on “dynamic force employment.” Likewise, Korean media expressed consternation over the increased possibility of troop reductions, harkening to similar anxieties in 2006 at the height of U.S. fighting in Iraq.

Beyond Section 1258, a significant –– if symbolic –– step to reiterating the U.S. government’s present troop commitment in South Korea would be the passage of a congressional resolution to reinstate the omitted phrase at the next security meeting later this year.

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Third, on technology export controls, Section 1058 of the recent NDAA stipulates “[c]onsiderations relating to permanently basing United States equipment or additional forces in host countries with at-risk vendors in 5G or 6G networks … including Huawei and ZTE.”

While a sensible provision, this bodes ill for the U.S.-ROK alliance. South Korean carrier LG U+ uses Huawei equipment for nearly a third of its 4G LTE infrastructure and all of its 3.5GHz 5G rollout. The company additionally employs Huawei for its pending 28GHz 5G deployment. In 2020, the Trump administration pressed LG to replace its Huawei vertical, demanding that Seoul join its “Clean Network” initiative to strengthen global privacy standards.

Despite some early ambiguity over its exact position regarding the Commerce Department’s blacklisting of Huawei, the Biden administration is positioning to amplify Washington’s concerns about espionage by Chinese state-affiliated telcos. Still, the U.S. couldn’t in good faith demand that LG scrap all its Huawei equipment, for which $22.6 billion has been spent, without providing the company a viable off-ramp to absorb these sunk costs. Without granting LG compensation or material support for a cost-efficient 5G alternative, U.S. efforts to pressure the Korean company will only exacerbate local views of the alliance. The Moon Jae-in administration has resisted U.S. attempts to intervene in what it regards as a strictly private matter, and further unilateral demands by Biden would only induce greater antipathy, obstructing relations.

Securing critical infrastructure in allied countries that host American soldiers should be reason enough to reimburse foreign telcos for the costs of blacklisting Huawei. If the Biden administration is comfortable accelerating a domestic “rip and replace” program to subsidize American telcos in exchange for decoupling Huawei equipment from their networks, Washington should also consider extending this package deal to certain mission-critical foreign telcos as well. Alternatively, the White House could discount LG’s Huawei investment from South Korea’s defense burden-sharing fees, thereby cushioning the blow for Seoul. Congressional lawmakers have urged Biden to cooperate with allies on reducing 5G supply chain risks, potentially via a G7-plus framework incorporating South Korea. This signals a strong appetite for broaching new avenues to bring LG –– and Seoul –– into the fold.

While Biden’s first call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping demonstrates he understands the limits of bilateral cooperation, it remains to be seen how his approach toward Beijing will differ in substance from Trump’s. A new Department of Defense task force on U.S.-China policy is expected to take months, while a global posture review may last well into the summer. 

Instead of waiting for Biden to formally initiate his version of engagement with the Indo-Pacific, Congress can build on the FY2021 and prior NDAAs to pave the way for a new approach to allies in Asia that respects and safeguards common interests. Further congressional action to guide the executive branch on burden-sharing negotiations, shore up troop commitments, and incentivize cooperation on securing critical goods may instill frayed alliances with much-needed credibility. 

Andrew Park is president of the Sejong Society in Washington, a consultant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a US-Japan-Korea working group participant at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. Follow on Twitter @Sejong_Society.

Elliot Silverberg is a fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a nonresident fellow at Pacific Forum in Hawaii. Follow him on Twitter at @EISilverberg.