Pentagon chief stresses alliances; back home, Trump tears at them

Pentagon chief stresses alliances; back home, Trump tears at them
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Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperBahrain joins US-led coalition to protect Gulf shipping Congress must exercise its power to ensure America has no war with Iran Pentagon tests previously banned cruise missile MORE stressed the importance of U.S. alliances during his inaugural foreign trip as Pentagon chief, though the message was undercut by President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE disparaging U.S. allies at the same time.

Esper used terms like "ironclad" to describe the alliances between the U.S. and other nations while on a seven-day trip last week in the Indo-Pacific. He stopped in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Mongolia and South Korea.

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At the same time, Trump was complaining that South Korea and Japan should pay a bigger share of the cost of housing U.S. troops overseas and praising North Korean dictator Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnTrump on North Korean projectile launches: Kim 'likes testing missiles' North Korea fires two more projectiles into sea Biden blasts Trump's 'embarrassing' actions heading into G-7 summit MORE

In South Korea, Esper on Friday met with top South Korean officials, noting that he came “to reaffirm that our United States-Republic of Korea alliance is ironclad.”

“It is the linchpin of peace and security both on the Korean Peninsula and in northeast Asia. Our two countries share a bond forged in combat,” he told the South Korean defense minister.

He also said the allies would continue to coordinate on North Korea and “go together in support of that vision by enhancing our already strong defense cooperation and continuing our work on key areas of regional security.”

The message came a day after Trump wrote on Twitter that South Korea “agreed to pay substantially more money” to carry the costs required to base 28,500 U.S. troops in South Korea.

“Over the past many decades, the U.S. has been paid very little by South Korea,” he complained, adding that talks have already begun with South Korea on increasing the $990 million it now pays the U.S. for defense. 

On Saturday Trump continued the line of thinking, tweeting that Kim had sent him a letter “complaining about the ridiculous and expensive" joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea.

But allies have learned to take such statements from Trump with a grain of salt, according to Pat Buchan, an Indo-Pacific security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

“A lot of the anti-alliance rhetoric that has come out of this administration, particularly this president as an individual ... is now seen by capitols as campaign rhetoric rather than policy or the direction the United States is seeking to go down,” Buchan told The Hill.

“That said, obviously there remains many questions when we’re traveling or speaking to counterparts from Australia, Japan, South Korea, it certainly remains a concern to them.”

Buchan added that Esper’s trip was “very well received,” due in large part to his credentials and the Pentagon’s long-standing stance of steering clear of politics.

“Someone like Esper is very much seen by alliance capitols as a very strongly committed alliance manager,” he said. “You’ll find that far more investment goes into people like Esper in terms of the face time that capitols seek than that with the president because they realize that there’s campaign rhetoric and there’s reality.” 

In addition, the timing of the trip — a major five-country tour over a week within his first month in office — “in of itself speaks volumes in alliance capitols of the level of U.S. commitment,” Buchan said.

Joshua Fitt, an Asia-Pacific expert with the Center for a New American Security, said he saw a similar reaction from allies after Esper’s trip.

Esper was very clear about the role of our regional allies and partners as laid out in the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, Fitt said.

Because of that, along with Esper’s distinguished service record, “they can see that he really understands the importance of alliances and partnerships and cooperation, and I think that gives him the credibility with allies ... despite the inflammatory statements that the president makes,” Fitt said. 

He added that while he “don’t think it helps” for Trump to question cost-sharing while Esper seeks to make inroads, the rhetoric has “been somewhat consistent since even before he was inaugurated.”

Esper himself didn’t shy away from bringing up cost-sharing when meeting with his counterparts, albeit in a more conciliatory tone.

“I think the consistent theme that the president has expressed, I've expressed, is we value our alliances, but there needs to be equitable sharing,” Esper told reporters traveling with him.

“Wherever that may be, whether it's in Asia, or whether it's in Europe with NATO or elsewhere, is we want to make sure that everybody is pulling their fair weight helping us defend these core values, principles out there.”