Washington-based Korea experts will be closely watching the next round of defense cost-sharing talks between the United States and South Korea, concerned that the strains being placed on the alliance could prove to be a windfall for America's adversaries.
The negotiations are scheduled to resume in the South Korean capital this month, with Seoul so far showing little willingness to accept U.S. demands for a fivefold increase in what it pays toward the cost of maintaining 28,500 American troops on its territory — from roughly $1 billion to $5 billion annually. A fourth round of talks ended Wednesday in Washington with no sign the two sides have inched closer to an agreement.
"Any friction between Washington and Seoul will be welcome in Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow," said David Maxwell, a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and longtime observer of U.S.-Korean affairs. Those countries, he said, need merely to "follow the dictum of Napoleon: Do not interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake."
The concern is compounded by the possibility of closer relations between South Korea and China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was in Seoul this week for high-level talks seen as paving the way for a possible visit to South Korea by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Break from past
U.S. President Donald Trump's demand that South Korea pay much more for U.S. protection is seen by many in policy circles as a break from long-standing U.S. policy, which saw strategic benefits from maintaining a troop presence on the Korean Peninsula.
Maxwell suggested that Washington is driving a hard bargain in hopes of establishing a precedent for burden-sharing negotiations with other countries. He told VOA that U.S. negotiators would continue to demand the highest level of funding possible from Seoul "as a way to influence the follow-on negotiations with Japan and Germany."
But, he said, South Korea will be "hard pressed" to increase its contribution because of domestic political considerations. "While the vast majority of South Koreans support the alliance, a great majority do not want South Korea to increase funds for burden sharing," he said, citing polls that show this view is held by as many as 96 percent of South Koreans.
Joseph R. DeTrani, a former U.S. special envoy for North Korea, told VOA at a Korea Foundation event this week that he remained hopeful that the sides would reach a cost-sharing agreement. "Perhaps not five times, maybe two times, or two and a half times" the current figure, he said.
Closer Beijing-Seoul ties?
Gilbert Rozman, an academic and author of several publications on Northeast Asia, was asked whether he worried that the U.S.-South Korea dispute could push Seoul closer to China.
"Not easily, because China has treated [South Korea] pretty badly," he said. "They're not inclined to go closer to China. But they feel [the U.S. demand] has been a big mistake."
In any case, he said, Beijing will likely push to improve regional economic ties at a coming summit in China's southwestern city of Chengdu this month with the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea — an event he referred to as the "CJK" summit.
South Korean media reports have said President Moon Jae-in will travel to Beijing after the summit and is expected to invite Xi to visit Seoul, possibly in the spring.
Rozman said Xi would probably place conditions on any visit to the South Korean capital. It has been widely reported that Beijing issued three demands ahead of a visit by Moon to Beijing in 2017, including limits on new South Korean missile defenses and on any trilateral South Korean alliance with the United States and Japan.