Japan and the U.S. settled on an unusual one-year agreement on Tokyo’s share of costs for hosting American troops Wednesday, in a move that will buy time for both sides amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The special agreement, reached after negotiations between the administrations of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and President Joe Biden, comes after years of reported backroom dealings between their predecessors that left the alliance strained over threats to withdraw U.S. troops if certain cost benchmarks were not met.
“As the security environment in the Indo-Pacific region becomes more severe, the Japan-U.S. alliance and American troops stationed in Japan are indispensable to our nation’s defense and regional peace and stability,” Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said at a news conference announcing the deal.
Motegi said it was “highly commendable” that the two sides were able to reach an agreement shortly after Biden took office, which he said was “the result of sincere negotiations between Japan and the U.S.”
The quick agreement, he said, “demonstrates our strong commitment to the alliance’s unity and demonstrates to the international community the alliance’s credibility.”
Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi also hailed the agreement as “crucial” to maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific region, adding that the coronavirus pandemic and the timing of Biden’s transition had delayed reaching an agreement earlier.
The one-year deal, in which Japan will shoulder about ¥200 billion — roughly in line with the previous year — is widely seen as a temporary measure, freeing the Biden team to battle the raging pandemic inside its borders and sparing Japan a potentially controversial negotiation over the costs.
Japan had tentatively earmarked ¥201.7 billion in its fiscal 2021 budget, about the same amount as the current year.
Typically, the two allies have inked five-year agreements on so-called host nation support, with the last such deal set to expire at the end of March.
Under their security treaty, Japan covers part of the costs for hosting about 55,000 U.S. military personnel in the country, including labor, training and utility outlays.
The quick resolution to the negotiations — the two sides only began talks on Feb. 2 under Biden — likely means both the Suga and Biden administrations will view the agreement as a win.
From Suga’s point of view, the cost-sharing was perhaps the most serious pending matter with direct implications for Japan’s national security and defense. Resolving the matter reduces one source of concern, as the administration is preoccupied with its vaccine rollout and stabilizing the pandemic domestically.
Suga has faced withering criticism over his administration’s handling of the coronavirus response, with a Kyodo poll this month showing that his Cabinet’s support rate had hit 38.8%, falling below the 40% threshold for the first time.
Suga has also avoided criticism from Washington that the first defense budget under his leadership was not as high as the U.S. might have liked. The Cabinet approved a record ¥5.34 trillion defense budget draft for fiscal 2021 late last year amid growing threats from China and North Korea. However, the fiscal 2020 budget only amounted to roughly 0.9% of Japan’s gross domestic product, while the U.S. has asked allies to spend 2% of their GDP on defense.
Corey Wallace, an expert on security in East Asia at Kanagawa University, said that the quick agreement was “probably not a bad thing” for Japan as the Suga administration grapples with other challenges. However, he said it was unlikely Japan would be able to continue to maintain its current level of payments as Washington seeks more from Tokyo.
“I don’t think Japan can get away with not paying more in the long-term,” Wallace said.
Attempting to avoid doing so, he added, would not be a good signal to the U.S. about Japan “pulling its own weight.”
As for the Biden administration, the agreement comes as his team continues to shape its foreign policy in a region increasingly important to the U.S., while also allowing it to focus on domestic priorities, including the pandemic.
“So it’s probably not very much in their interests to pick fights with allies while they’re trying to find their feet on both the ramping-up of immunizations and finding a consensus on what the more competitive U.S. policy is going to be with regards to china and how the U.S. will be situated in East Asia,” Wallace said.
During the bumpy U.S. presidential transition period, when uncertainty arose about the outcome of the talks, the Japanese Foreign Ministry remained insistent that Tokyo had already conveyed its thinking on the cost-sharing issue and that the ball was in Washington’s court. The ministry was confident, though, that both the Republican and Democratic parties were well aware that Tokyo’s current fiscal cycle would conclude in late March, according to one senior official.
Going forward, Kishi said negotiations on a new deal beyond April 2022 would continue and that a decision on the length of that deal would be discussed during those talks.
In those negotiations, the Japanese side could aim to negotiate before the year’s end a pact that covers the remaining four years of what would ultimately be a de facto five-year deal, the Asahi Shimbun daily reported, citing multiple government sources.
Observers say the new talks could also focus on further bolstering the U.S.-Japan alliance in arenas such as cybersecurity and space, as well as a special focus on combating China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region.
Wednesday’s agreement comes in the wake of Donald Trump’s tumultuous “America First” presidency.
Trump had pressed Tokyo to dole out substantially more cash for the troops. In a memoir published last year by top Trump administration official John Bolton, the fired national security adviser wrote that his former boss had said that the best way to get allies like Japan and South Korea to pay the increases, “was to threaten to withdraw all U.S. forces.”
Through a personal relationship that then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had managed to cultivate with Trump, Tokyo sought to appease the erratic administration from taking drastic actions, highlighting the benefits of the U.S. troops’ presence in the region. Although Abe was among few world leaders who got along with Trump, the issue of cost-sharing was a sticking point that would have complicated the cozy ties if the Biden and Suga administrations had not reached an agreement.
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