Protection racket. The U.S. and South Korea finalized a long-negotiated deal on mutual defense costs. Seoul agreed to shoulder an 8.2 percent jump in its share of the expense of stationing U.S. troops on the peninsula this year, but Washington rebuffed Seoul’s demands that the deal last three to five years, meaning the two sides will be back at the negotiating table a year from now. The Trump administration is reportedly doubling down on plans to push other allies like Japan, Germany and Gulf countries – and, eventually, any country that hosts U.S. troops – to pay the full cost of U.S. troop deployments, plus a 50 percent premium. This would effectively amount to a 500-600 percent increase in costs in some cases. The White House demanded “the Cost Plus 50” formula from Seoul before agreeing to only a marginal increase, underscoring the reality that the U.S. has to prove it’s willing to bring its troops home if countries call its bluff. But if nations like North Korea, in particular, believe that the U.S. is really willing to pull up stakes, watch for them to shape their negotiating strategies around more aggressively pushing the U.S. toward the exits.

The Quad dream remains a dream. On Thursday, the chief of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Phil Davidson, cast further doubt on the idea that the U.S., Japan, Australia and India would form a defense coalition anytime soon. Davidson said that, during a visit to New Delhi in January, Indian navy chief Adm. Sunil Lanba “made it quite clear” that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – launched initially in 2007, shelved under Chinese pressure in 2009, and revived primarily by Japan in 2017 – likely won’t become anything more than a talk shop. India and, to a lesser extent, Australia are simply too wary of making China feel cornered to back a formal alliance. That the U.S. is tacitly threatening to dramatically diminish its footprint in the region probably isn’t helping. Still, the formal Quad concept is less important than how military cooperation among the four members develops in bilateral and trilateral settings. And for the time being, each of the four is deepening coordination with each of the others.

Southeast Asia hedges its bets. On Thursday, Davidson said Chinese military activity involving “ships, fighters and bombers” in the South China Sea markedly increased over the past year. Davidson also pushed back on perceptions of U.S. ambivalence toward the region, describing the U.S. as an “enduring Pacific power.” This came a day after an unidentified Chinese vessel reportedly sank a Vietnamese fishing boat near the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. (China claims its vessel merely helped rescue the Vietnamese fishermen after their boat was already sinking.) U.S. rhetorical commitments aside, most Southeast Asian states are still uncertain about how to manage the U.S.-China competition in the region. In an interview with the South China Morning Post, for example, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad griped about U.S. unpredictability and trade pressure and said, at least economically, Malaysia prefers China. Notably, though, Mahathir’s comments came during a visit to Manila, where he warned Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte about the coercive power of Chinese investment. Meanwhile, divides within Manila have emerged over the need to update the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty. The defense minister wants stronger U.S. commitments; the foreign minister doesn’t see the need.

Honorable Mentions

  • Germany declined to explicitly ban equipment from Chinese telecom giant Huawei in a new set of cybersecurity guidelines released days before the country is set to start auctioning frequencies for its 5G network.
  • Chinese exports declined 20.7 percent last month year over year in U.S. dollar terms – the biggest monthly fall since February 2016.
  • Indian officials told Reuters New Delhi is seeking an extension of its waiver from U.S. oil sanctions on Iran.
  • Iran’s navy said it thwarted a pirate attack on an oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden.
  • Germany’s foreign minister said the EU was mulling imposing additional sanctions on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, pending future developments.
  • Turkish and Russian forces are set to start joint patrols today in Idlib, Syria, according to Ankara.