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In speech to Congress, Trump urges military allies to do more — a demand Abe may welcome

by

Staff Writer

While U.S. President Donald Trump hammered home his domestic agenda Tuesday in his first address to a joint session of Congress, he also used the speech to remind security allies — including Japan — that they must “pay their fair share” of the alliances’ costs.

Trump, who pledged a “renewal of the American spirit,” also used the address as yet another opportunity to reassure nervous allies fearful of a U.S. retreat from the global stage.

“To those allies who wonder what kind of friend America will be, look no further than the heroes who wear our uniform,” Trump said. “Our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world. It is American leadership based on vital security interest that we share with our allies all across the globe.”

However, he offered a caveat that he has stuck to since he began his White House campaign, albeit in more nuanced terms since becoming president: pay up, or else.

On the campaign trail, Trump had ripped into Japan and threatened to withdraw U.S. forces, saying Tokyo shoulders too little of the financial burden.

While his words stoked widespread concern in Tokyo, he appeared to have softened his stance as he settled into office and after meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last month.

Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said Trump has indeed moderated his tone.

“I think President Trump and his administration have assuaged some of the worst fears of U.S. allies and security partners,” he said.

Cook cited a statement released after the Trump-Abe meeting that said the U.S. “stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent” as a good example of this shift.

Still, Tuesday’s speech hinted that Trump could seek to wrest concessions from Tokyo in the security arrangement.

“Our partners must meet their financial obligations,” Trump said. “We expect our partners — whether in NATO, in the Middle East or the Pacific — to take a direct and meaningful role in both strategic and military operations and pay their fair share of the cost.”

In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga threw cold water on suggestions that Trump would urge Japan to pay more.

Referring to U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis’ comments during his visit to Japan in early February, Suga said the defense chief had “made clear that Japan is different from other countries which host the U.S. (military).”

“I think that stays the same,” Suga added.

Mattis also called Japan’s cost-sharing burden for hosting U.S. forces “a model” for other nations to follow.

But Cook said statements such as those by Trump in his speech could prompt U.S. allies and security partners to feel that they must more clearly demonstrate to Trump how the relationships benefit the U.S. and its security interests.

Beyond the monetary aspect, Trump’s words could also reflect his belief that U.S. allies and partners must also do more militarily — especially considering China’s growing assertiveness and territorial ambitions.

Trump has proposed a surge in military spending, with a particular emphasis on new aircraft, ships and weapons systems, as part of his “peace through strength” approach to foreign policy.

He has also alluded to a more ramped-up presence in Asia, though he has derided his predecessor’s “rebalance” to the region.

“Certainly, if the U.S. under President Trump increases U.S. operations and deployments in the South China and East China seas, Washington could well expect — and demand — that Japan and other regional allies and security partners do the same,” said Cook.

China claims most of the disputed South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year.

It has built seven man-made islets in the hotly contested Spratly chain there, with three islands boasting military-grade airfields and anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further “militarize” the islands.

The East China Sea is likely to concern Japan the most, as it contains the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

The waters around the tiny islets have been the site of routine incursions by Chinese government vessels, stoking concern in Tokyo.

With a more robust U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific, Trump could encourage Abe to do more militarily in the region, analysts say — a demand that Abe would likely embrace.

“This could play into Prime Minister Abe’s hands by giving him a powerful new lever against Komeito and (the) broader public’s … hesitancy against Japan playing a more proactive security role,” Cook said.

Komeito, the junior partner to Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party in the ruling coalition, has voiced objections to revising the pacifist Constitution — one of Abe’s long-held goals. A demand from Trump could provide ammunition for Abe in his quest to fulfill this goal.

“Trump’s demands for allies to do more could be a useful opening for Abe to advance his own security agenda,” Cook said.

Information from Kyodo added