On what is likely to be his last visit to Japan as U.S. defense secretary, Ash Carter offered reassurances to Tokyo on Wednesday that the U.S. remains committed to the alliance and the broader Asia-Pacific region amid fears of an American pullback by President-elect Donald Trump.
Carter met with Defense Minister Tomomi Inada in Tokyo, where the two reviewed the progress the alliance has made under the leadership of U.S. President Barack Obama during his eight years in office.
Carter, who kicked off his final Asia tour a day earlier in Japan, repeatedly emphasized that the alliance remains “stronger than ever,” and that the U.S. is committed to the region — an apparent allusion to Trump’s comments on the utility of the U.S. alliance system. Those remarks have stoked concerns about U.S. security guarantees across the globe.
In his meeting with Inada, Carter also lauded Japan’s efforts to upgrade its role under the new Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines, which were revised in 2015 for the first time. The new guidelines emphasize that the alliance benefits not only the two nations, but the region as a whole.
“American interests in this region are enduring. Our alliance provides many benefits to both of our sides,” said Carter. “For us, the United States, we share many interests in this region with Japan, including the need to defend ourselves against threats like North Korea.”
Inada echoed Carter, saying that the alliance is not just “a public asset” for bilateral relations, but also an asset to Asia and the global community.
“The bedrock of the Japan-U.S. alliance is maintaining solid order, not by force, but by its principles and our shared values,” Inada said. “We would like to strengthen and deepen the relations under the new administration.
Carter’s visit to Japan came amid rising uncertainties surrounding the alliance under the incoming Trump administration. On the campaign trail, the president-elect repeatedly exclaimed that U.S. allies must pay more if they want the protection of the U.S. security umbrella.
On his flight to Japan, Carter said he was satisfied with the host-nation support Japan provides, remarks that stood in stark contrast to Trump’s pronunciations.
During Wednesday’s joint news conference, Carter reiterated his position that “Japan makes a very strong contribution to the U.S. presence” in Japan in both monetary and base arrangement terms.
The outlay for Japan’s so-called sympathy budget for U.S. military bases in the country hit ¥192 billion — the most in seven years.
On Tuesday, Carter also reaffirmed the U.S. position that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty applies to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands when he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He repeated that position during his talks with Inada.
The tiny islets in the East China Sea are also claimed by China, where they are known as the Diaoyus.
Carter’s visit to Japan, which will be followed by a stop in India, also shined a spotlight on the challenges that Trump will face in dealing with the fluid security situation in Asia.
With its Asia “pivot,” the Obama administration went all-in in its dealings with the region from Day One. Despite this explicit commitment by the U.S., China began ramping up its moves in the region, including flexing its muscles in the disputed South China Sea, where it conducted massive land-reclamation projects on which military assets have been installed.
Perhaps more disconcerting to Tokyo, Beijing has also beefed up its challenges to Japanese airspace and territorial waters by dispatching large flotillas of government ships and aircraft.
Meanwhile, critics have blasted Obama’s approach to North Korea, known as “strategic patience,” noting that it has failed to rein in Pyongyang’s quest for improved nuclear and missile technologies.
Yet the incoming U.S. administration’s Asia policy, including on North Korea, remains worryingly vague for many in the region.
Trump, who has no experience in government or diplomacy, had even suggested that Japan and South Korea build their own nuclear weapons to deter any nuclear threat.
To counter what some have called campaign rhetoric by Trump, Carter said the U.S. is committed to providing its extended nuclear deterrence, a statement welcomed by Inada.
But important work still remains for the two allies, including how to resolve long-standing base-burden issues in Okinawa after a spate of incidents sparked widespread anger on the island prefecture.
The two governments have yet to hammer out promised changes that would limit the type of U.S. military workers protected under the Status of Forces Agreement. A deal on the changes was announced in July, three months after the rape and murder of 20-year-old Rina Shimabukuro, allegedly by Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, a civilian employee at Kadena Air Base and former U.S. Marine.
Carter said that both governments would conclude those arrangements in the near future, but did not give a specific time frame.
The two defense chiefs also agreed to pursue the return of more than half of the Northern Territory Area, a U.S. military training site in northern Okinawa Prefecture, on Dec. 22.
The return of the 4,000 hectare parcel — which would be the largest handover by the U.S. since the island’s reversion to Japanese control in 1972 — was agreed upon by Tokyo and Washington in 1996 in exchange for the construction of six helipads on the remaining land.
But construction there has met with fierce protest by local residents who have complained about the noise made by the Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the environmental impact on the area.