Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin participate in a joint press availability with Republic of Korea Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Republic of Korea Defense Minister Suh Wook, in Seoul, Republic of Korea, on March 18, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha]
From K Street with love: The Biden Cabinet’s first trip abroad

Last week Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Japan and South Korea. After former President Trump’s mercurial, at best, relationship with these long-time U.S. allies, it is perhaps unsurprising that Tokyo and Seoul would be the first stops abroad for top officials in President Joe Biden’s Cabinet.

As a spokesperson for Blinken succinctly explained, the trip was designed “to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to strengthening our alliances.” Blinken, himself, made it clear on the first day of the trip that these alliances will, “push back, if necessary, when China uses coercion and aggression to get its way.”

These and other strategic concerns — not the least of which are the more than 92,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in both countries — ostensibly justify this trip. But, much like Donald Trump’s first trip abroad as president to Saudi Arabia, which was preceded by an extensive courting of the Trump administration by now Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the kingdom’s influence peddlers in the United States, there may have been another powerful political force pushing Austin and Blinken to Japan and South Korea: the extraordinary amount of money both countries spend on lobbying in the United States every year.

While Japan and South Korea disagree on much, they certainly agree on the importance of garnering greater influence in America. The sheer size of both countries’ lobbying operations in the United States is staggering. Japan and South Korea spend more on Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, registered firms than any other country in the world, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Since 2016 Japan has spent a whopping $191 million and South Korea has spent over $165 million on FARA registered firms, according to CRP. To put this in perspective, the oft discussed Saudi lobby that helped drive Trump’s trip to Riyadh, has received just $109 million in this same time-period.

With this extraordinary spending, these countries by access, influence, effectively, a seat at the table in crafting U.S. foreign policy in the region.

Recently released reports on Japan and South Korea’s lobbying operations in the United States by the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, which I direct at the Center for International Policy, documented just how massive these countries’ influence is on Capitol Hill. In just one year, 2019, lobbyists for these countries each contacted members of Congress or congressional staff more than a thousand times. Combined, they met with, called, or e-mailed the office of nearly every member of Congress.

And their influence is still growing. The South Korean government added to its already extensive Hill network earlier this year, singing a contract with Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck in January. Amongst the Brownstein lobbyists at the firm that will be representing the South Korean government are Nadeam Elshami, former chief of staff to Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, former Congressman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and former Senator Mark Begich (D-Alaska).

This immense breadth of lobbying on behalf of Japan and South Korea is coupled with a deep focus on members of Congress with the greatest sway over the issues these countries care most about, namely economic and defense issues. In fact, nearly one-third of all lobbying done by both countries is explicitly tied to defense issues, including military basing and arms sales, or targeted at the armed services committees and military-focused staffers, according to the FITI reports.

The goals of this lobbying run the gamut, from increasing general support for Japan and South Korea to shifting billions of dollars in the Pentagon budget. For example, the day after lobbyists working for the government of Japan met with the office of Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), a bill the congressman co-sponsored “on the importance and vitality of the United States alliances with Japan and the Republic of Korea” was sent to committee. While this sense of Congress would cost nothing, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which Japan’s and South Korea’s foreign agents lobbied heavily for, will cost taxpayers $2.2 billion in 2021 and could ultimately have a price-tag of $20 billion to fund Pentagon programs in Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere in the Pacific.

The reach of these expansive lobbying operations extends well beyond the confines of Congress too. They devote significant attention to the media and Executive branch officials, particularly at the State Department and the Department of Defense. They’re even tracking state and local government issues, like the content of textbooks that New York school children receive. And, this says nothing of the millions of dollars both countries give to think tanks every year.

All of this influence combines to create an environment in America that is decidedly uncritical of a militarized U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. With a few notable exceptions, it’s rare to find anyone in the United States willing to question whether we really need to have more than 92,000 military personnel stationed in South Korea and Japan. Perhaps ironically, the biggest critics of U.S. basing in Japan are a sub-set of Japan’s foreign agents — the Okinawa Prefecture government. By far, the largest U.S. military base in Japan is located in Okinawa, and the people of Okinawa really don’t want the base there. But, the Okinawa government spends less than $200,000 a year on lobbying in the United States while the government of Japan spends around $30 million, on average.

None of this is to say that Japan and South Korea aren’t valuable U.S. allies, that are critically important partners in addressing the challenges presented by North Korea and China — they most certainly are. The issue is that the boundaries around the debate over U.S. relations with Japan and South Korea have been dramatically narrowed by those countries lobbying operations in the United States. At the very least, U.S. policymakers and pundits must be conscious of the way this influence constrains our thinking and pushes us towards accepting the status quo of a heavily militarized approach to solving foreign policy problems in the region.

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