Why US Pays for Defense of Its Allies: 5 Questions Answered

When stronger countries provide security for weaker countries, they receive non-material benefits in return.

5 min read
The US pays billions to maintain military bases in Japan and South Korea.

Since the start of Donald Trump’s run for the US presidency in 2015, he has been critical of the amount of money US allies contribute to their own defense.

Now, the Trump 0administration is demanding that Japan and South Korea pay more for hosting US troops stationed in those countries.

The media also reported that US military leadership in South Korea discussed the possibility of withdrawing up to 4,000 troops from South Korea if it does not increase its contributions. The Pentagon has since denied having such plans.

We have each studied overseas deployments of US military personnel for nearly a decade and have recently come together to research the costs and benefits of such deployments.

1. What’s in It for the US?

The US currently has approximately 174,000 active-duty personnel deployed to overseas locations in approximately 140 countries. The Department of Defense Comptroller’s Office estimates the total cost of overseas bases and deployments at $24.4 billion in fiscal year 2020. These figures generally exclude the costs of ongoing combat operations.

When stronger countries provide security for weaker countries, they receive non-material benefits in return.

For example, the weaker country may sacrifice control over their foreign policy and give the major power access to territory or airspace it otherwise would not have. Deployments in Japan and Korea gave the US influence in Southeast and East Asian regional matters during the Cold War.

Additionally, US military personnel have served as the forefront of US public diplomacy over the past 70 years through their routine jobs and day-to-day interactions with locals. The US has been particularly effective at building “soft power,” meaning that people in other countries support the US because of the affinity they feel toward Americans and American culture.

Why  US Pays  for  Defense of Its Allies: 5 Questions Answered
(Photo Courtesy: The Conversation)

2. How Long Has the US Had Bases in Japan and South Korea?

Since the end of World War II in 1945 and the Korean War in 1953, the US has maintained several military bases and tens of thousands of military personnel within both countries.

After Japan regained its sovereignty in 1951, the United States and Japan signed a treaty calling for mutual defense and an agreement that allowed for the US to operate and maintain military bases in Japan. Either country has the option, with one year’s notice, to end the treaty.

Currently, there are approximately 55,000 US troops in Japan.

South Korea has hosted US forces since the Korean War, when the United Nations Security Council authorized member nations to repel North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. After the 1953 armistice, the forces remained to provide continued security to South Korea and to deter hostilities from North Korea.

There are currently approximately 26,500 US troops in South Korea.

Why  US Pays  for  Defense of Its Allies: 5 Questions Answered
(Photo Courtesy: The Conversation)

3. How Much Do Japan and South Korea Normally Contribute?

The United States has negotiated agreements with both Japan and South Korea that lay out the details of the cost-sharing arrangements with each country.

The specific amounts contributed, as well as the activities that each state covers, vary by country and over time. However, the contributions of US allies typically are substantial.

For example, in 2019, the US and South Korea negotiated an agreement calling for South Korea to contribute approximately $893 million.

Japan’s current agreement doesn’t provide a clear statement on total contributions. However, Japan’s current support amounts to approximately $1.7 billion.

By comparison, the Department of Defense currently estimates the total cost of maintaining the US presence in South Korea and Japan at $4.5 billion and $5.7 billion, respectively.

Accordingly, both countries’ contributions amount to a substantial percentage of these total price tags.


Importantly, these figures provide only a rough picture of the financial relationship between the host country and the US related to defense. For example, the figures for Japan do not reflect other transfers, like Japanese purchases of US weapons systems, free rent and tax waivers, and other expenditures taken on by the Japanese government.

Why  US Pays  for  Defense of Its Allies: 5 Questions Answered
(Photo Courtesy: The Conversation)

4. How Do People in Other Countries View the Presence of US Military?

In 2018, we conducted a survey in 14 countries, including Japan and South Korea, with approximately 1,000 respondents in each. These countries have traditionally hosted large US military deployments.

We found that people in the host country generally feel positively or have neutral attitudes toward the US personnel stationed in their country. People who have had direct contact with members of the US military, or whose families and friends have interacted with the military, are more likely to report favorable views of US personnel.

In addition, between 10 percent and 25 percent report receiving financial benefits from the US military presence. This can include having US servicemembers patronise their businesses or being employed by the US military.

Our personal interviews with people in troop-hosting countries confirm these findings. For example, when we asked a member of the local Parish Council in the village of Lakenheath, England, how locals interact with the US military, he told us, “When they see that (US military personnel) are just as human as you are, people like (the US military) more.”

Why  US Pays  for  Defense of Its Allies: 5 Questions Answered
(Photo Courtesy: The Conversation)

Opinions are not uniform. There are certainly ethical, social, environmental and economic considerations to hosting large US deployments, and these costs have led to dissatisfaction and opposition in multiple countries.

The US presence has led to protest movements on the Japanese island of Okinawa, around the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and in South Korea.

The more the US demands host nations pay for the US presence, the less support local politicians may have to maintain the arrangement.


5. Are Trump’s Demands Reasonable?

The discussion of whether US allies contribute enough to their own defense is as old as many of the deployments themselves.

However, there are two components that make the Trump demands novel.

First, negotiations with South Korea previously occurred every four to five years. The Trump administration changed this last year to every year for South Korea. These negotiations are complicated and could make annual negotiations both time-consuming and turbulent.

Second, reports suggest that Trump’s new demands are not based on any clear US military need. This leads us to the question of how Trump arrived at the new sum being sought from South Korea.

Polling shows that while Americans are increasingly skeptical of the US intervention into Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans do support the United States’ current engagement in the world and its commitments to allies.

(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article here.)

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