Gen. Paul LaCamera, the nominee for commander of US Forces Korea and South Korea-US Combined Forces Command, testifies before the US Senate Armed Services Committee, on Tuesday, in Washington. (UPI/Yonhap News)
The nominee for US Forces Korea (USFK) commander and South Korea-US Combined Forces Command said in a congressional hearing that the two countries’ alliance needs to develop into a global alliance similar to the US-Japan alliance.
Gen. Paul LaCamera’s remarks appear to speak for the US mainstream opinion that South Korea needs to play a bigger military role in maintaining American hegemony as the conflict between the US and China moves beyond ideology toward a squabble for leadership of semiconductors and other high-tech industries.
“Given the global role of the US military and, increasingly, the international reach of the South Korean military, opportunities are emerging for alliance cooperation beyond the Korean Peninsula. United States Forces Korea forces are uniquely positioned to provide the Commander of [US Indo-Pacific Command] a range of capabilities that create options for supporting out-of-area contingencies and responses to regional threats,” LaCamera said in his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and in prepared remarks released beforehand.
In short, LaCamera said that USFK should move beyond its traditional role of defending South Korea from a North Korean invasion and acquire a “strategic flexibility” under which it could respond to regional crises in other countries. The nominee also said the South Korean military can cooperate on such matters within the framework of the South Korea-US alliance.
Regarding joint military exercises in August that are regarded as a decisive variable in resuming talks with North Korea, LaCamera said that actual exercises are more desirable than virtual ones, making clear he wants the exercises to be held in the field if possible.
If LaCamera’s remarks are adopted as the official position of the US government, it could become tougher to restart North Korea-US dialogue before the end of Moon Jae-in’s presidency. That would also increase the risk of South Korea being embroiled in an unexpected clash between the US and China in Taiwan or elsewhere in the East China Sea.
But while LaCamera said he preferred actual maneuvers, he acknowledged that joint exercises in the field were a potential bargaining chip, leaving open the possibility for various diplomatic solutions.
The strategic flexibility of USFK that LaCamera mentioned in the hearing reflects an agreement reached between the South Korean and American governments in Jan. 2006, during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun. At the time, the South Korean government persuaded the US to voice its respect for South Koreans’ determination not to get involved in a regional dispute in Northeast Asia against their will.
Fifteen years later, South Korea is starting to feel pressure again as the conflict between the US and China grows more conspicuous. But since LaCamera leaves open the door to diplomatic negotiations, the US’s pressure will probably not become overt for now.
Japan represents a noteworthy precedent here. After the US and Japan upgraded the role and status of their alliance into a “global alliance” following former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to allow the exercise of “collective self-defense” in 2014 and 2015, Japan sent its helicopter carriers Kaga and Izumo to the South China Sea in 2018 and 2019 for joint naval exercises with the US aimed at containing China.
Japan also made its first mention of Taiwan in 52 years in a joint statement following a summit with the US on April 16, earning a fierce rebuke from China. “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” the two countries said in their statement.
Yukio Takeuchi, former Japanese vice foreign minister, told the Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese newspaper, that Japan had “crossed the Rubicon.”
The US intends to gradually expand South Korea’s military role not only through their alliance but also through a trilateral alliance with Japan. Senators who took part in LaCamera’s hearing asked how trilateral military cooperation could be used to contain China.
In a March 22 report by John Hamre and Joseph Nye, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an American think tank, argued that the South Korea-US alliance needs to expand its role to make a greater international contribution. And in a Tuesday report jointly published with the Chey Institute for Advanced Studies, the CSIS said that South Korea and the US need to establish priorities in a regional context beyond the Korean Peninsula.
By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter
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