Japan gives up bid to slash funding of U.S. military bases

Kyodo News

Tokyo will not seek to substantially cut its burden-sharing of labor and other operational costs for U.S. bases in Japan from next April, reaching a tentative agreement with Washington to keep it at the fiscal 2007 level of about ¥140.9 billion, government sources from both sides said Friday.

The two sides, negotiating on revisions to the Special Measures Agreement on cost-sharing for a three-year renewal, are expected to reach a formal accord next week. Japan had hoped to curtail its “host-nation support” for U.S. bases amid a massive national debt and to reach such an accord with the United States before compiling the fiscal 2008 budget later this month.

Japan had initially proposed to the U.S. to cut ¥30 billion in labor costs and ¥25 billion in utility costs over five years from fiscal 2008, which begins in April, the sources said.

However, Japan decided to give up on the request due to recent developments — strained relations with Washington since the withdrawal of Japan’s refueling mission in the Indian Ocean when the legislation expired on Nov. 1, and Japan’s hopes that the United States will not take North Korea off the list of states sponsoring terrorism.

A Japanese government source described the negotiations as having come at “the worst time” because the U.S. is pressing its allies to share the cost and personnel burden, amid its snowballing defense expenditures as a result of its antiterrorism operations in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.

The Diet is in political gridlock with the opposition camp, which holds a majority in the Upper House, delaying the procedure to pass a new bill to resume the refueling mission, claiming it goes against the Constitution.

Separately, a senior Foreign Ministry official said Japan had “to do whatever it could to avoid” putting U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer in a bind.

Schieffer, who heads the U.S. side in the cost-sharing negotiations, is seen as key to Japan’s efforts in urging Washington to keep North Korea on the terrorism-sponsor blacklist until there is progress in resolving Pyongyang’s abductions of Japanese nationals.

The ambassador, considered a longtime friend of U.S. President George W. Bush, is reported to have sent Bush a private cable in October warning that a deal with North Korea could damage relations with Japan.

Meanwhile, Japan and the U.S. are negotiating a reduction of up to ¥10 billion on a contractual basis in the maintenance cost for U.S. military facilities, which are borne by Japan under the Status of Forces Agreement, down from ¥45.7 billion in fiscal 2007, the sources said.