SEOUL - U.S. presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump reiterated sharply opposing views on the issue of military support for American allies around the world, and for Japan and South Korea in particular, during their first televised debate on Monday.
Clinton, the Democratic candidate, criticized past statements made by Republican nominee Trump that indicated he might withdraw troops from Asia unless allies more fairly compensate the U.S. for protection.
“He has said repeatedly that he does not care if other nations got nuclear weapons, Japan, South Korea even Saudi Arabia,” said Clinton.
Trump countered that his opponent was misrepresenting his position, which he indicated was about negotiating a better compensation deal for U.S. support.
“All I said was they may have to defend themselves or they have to help us out. We are a country that owes $20 trillion, they have to help us out,” he said.
Fact checking Japan, South Korea troops
Trump has in the past singled out Japan and South Korea as “free-riders” for paying Washington too little for contributing 50,000 American troops in Japan and 28,500 in South Korea to maintain regional peace and security.
And if Tokyo and Seoul refuse his demand to increase security reimbursements to Washington, Trump has said he would consider withdrawing troops from the region and allowing Asian Pacific allies to acquire their own nuclear deterrence.
Trump defended his position that allies must pay more for American defense saying the U.S., with massive financial and trade deficits, can no longer afford the costs of stationing thousands of troops abroad.
“I want to help all of our allies but we are losing billions of dollars. We cannot be the policemen of the world,” said Trump.
Compensation for US bases
Tokyo reportedly pays about $1.6 billion and Seoul pays over $866 million annually to Washington for the military bases in their countries.
While Trump’s criticism of allies not paying their fair share may be a legitimate point of contention, arming allies with nuclear weapons would violate the U.S.’s longstanding commitment under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to prevent the spread of these weapons of mass destruction.
“His cavalier attitude about nuclear weapons is so deeply troubling. That is the number one threat we face in the world and it becomes particularly threatening if terrorists ever get their hands on any nuclear material,” said Clinton.
Trump agreed that the possibility terrorists might acquire a nuclear device is “the single greatest threat facing the United States.”
US commitment to allies
Clinton reaffirmed that if elected she would stand by America’s longstanding commitment to protect its allies with both conventional and nuclear forces if attacked.
South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho June-hyuck on Tuesday said South Korea is monitoring the U.S. presidential election and how it might affect relations in the future, but the alliance with the U.S. remains strong.
“I can tell you that our government has been contributing and playing a role to maintain and strengthen Korean-U.S. joint defense capability and provide stable conditions for the USFK (U.S. Forces Korea) to be stationed,” said Cho.
In July Republican Senator John McCain, who supports Trump, and Senator Robert Menendez, his Democratic counterpart on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a commentary to say that the U.S. will meet its mutual defense treaty obligations no matter who is the next president, and urged American allies in the region to take Trump’s comments with “a grain of salt.”
However a growing number of conservative lawmakers in Seoul have cited a lack of confidence in the U.S. defense commitment and are urging the South Korean government to develop its own nuclear deterrent to defend against the growing North Korean threat.
Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.