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Problems are afoot in Northeast Asia, and they involve our treaty commitments with friends of over half a century - South Korea and Japan. As the Trump-Kim Jong Un summit next month takes shape, both Tokyo and Seoul are casting nervous eyes on the Middle East.  The worry? That President Trump will do to them what he has done to the Kurds: impulsively fulfill campaign and Tweet pledges to withdraw U.S. forces.

  • If former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis couldn't stop the president from a Syria withdrawal (and it took a lot to force that hardened warrior to resign!), acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan surely won't be able to block a U.S. forces draw-down in South Korea or Japan if that’s the president’s impulse. Hopefully, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joe Dunford or inbound Chairman General Mark Milley can act as a guard-rail; but that rail is already badly dented. 

Context here is crucial to explain the Japan and South Korea neuralgia: clearly, the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit itself drives most of the unease. The principal worry of course is that, to close a deal, Trump will concede on the stationing of U.S. forces in the region. But beyond what Trump may do to forge a denuclearization deal with Kim, there's the allies' worry on a separate track about the increasingly vocal Trump ranting on the "cost of stationing U.S. troops overseas." It's the old "burden-sharing" argument, heard for years, but now amplified by the president: "why can't our allies do more to pay for U.S. troops stationed in their countries?"

  • Our allies do pay the U.S. a lot to host, as the media is helpfully highlighting of late. But Trump adds uniquely "Trumpian" spin to the burden-sharing argument: first is to couch what he views as inadequate allied contributions in bilateral "trade-deficit" terms, an apples-oranges comparison at best; trade deficits are little affected by overseas troop stationing.
  • But the president also fails to recognize that withdrawing forces from overseas means those forces are likely eliminated from our force structure. Re-stationing troops or Air Wings from Japan/South Korea to Fort Bragg/Fort Hood/Langley Air Force base, for example, would magnify enormously the current cost of these forces, if retained - a burden no service secretary wants to shoulder. Further, respected defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon has concluded that the net cost to the U.S. of our forces overseas is near zero! 
    • On a personal note, I had to testify before Congress in the 80's on burden-sharing in Germany; the rebuttals to the "bring 'em home" rhetoric then were the same as now: the costs are minimal and withdrawing means elimination.
  • Further, and probably most significantly, U.S. forces stationed overseas serve our strategic interests in these regions at least as much as they serve the host country's! 

So, bottom line: combine the prospect of a summit deal with Kim that offers up some U.S. force withdrawal with Trump's "deficit/burden sharing" fever and one understands the Japanese and South Korean neuralgia. Viewed through the "Syria decision" lens especially, Asian allies now expect the worst.     

  • And of course, behind all of this is a China more than excited at the prospect that U.S. forces long-stationed in their "sphere of influence" might be sailing away - just as Putin was more than excited to see US forces prepared to leave eastern Syria. We'll be missing Mattis more and more as the weeks drag on.