CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA – U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported musings in private conversations about abrogating the Japan-U.S. security treaty due to concerns over unfair terms of the relationship — quickly followed by Tokyo’s insistence that it confirmed with the White House that this was not U.S. government policy — illustrate the tension between the Trump administration’s focus on winning fair deals for the American people and national security priorities.
Trump is right to pursue the best agreements possible for U.S. taxpayers. As one of those taxpayers, I am appreciative of the president’s laser-like focus on this front. More broadly, though, negotiating better deals mustn’t throw a match to vital American strategic interests. The Japan-U.S. security treaty is a case in point.
Are there inequities in the Japan-U.S. security relationship? Possibly, although they’re not egregious. According to a 2017 overview by the Pentagon, American bases cost $5.5 billion in 2016 and, as part of a 2015 deal, Japan pays $1.65 billion to $1.95 billion per year to support them. The same Pentagon report showed that Tokyo paid an additional $1 billion in base-related labor in 2016.
According to these numbers, in 2016 Japan may have paid up to $2.75 billion toward hosting U.S. bases on its soil. This would leave the United States to pay the remaining tab which amounts to approximately $2.75 billion (with possible slight variations due to fluctuating dollar-yen exchange rates).
Going back 15 years, in 2004 the Pentagon’s Allied Contributions to the Common Defense report had Tokyo paying direct support of $3.2 billion and indirect support of $1.18 billion which, when taken together, covered 74.5 percent of the total cost of the U.S. military’s security umbrella.
In 2017, then-Defense Minister Tomomi Inada updated this information, reporting that Tokyo paid roughly 86.4 percent of the total cost. Taking these figures into consideration, it can be argued that Washington has at times gotten the upper hand in this deal from a simple arithmetic perspective.
Yet, part of Trump’s argument is that Japan and other allies should pay more for the benefits of American protection. According to reporting by Bloomberg in March of this year, the president is advocating a policy called “Cost Plus 50” that demands allies cover the entire cost of hosting American troops in addition to a 50 percent premium for the “privilege” of Washington’s protection. Countries like Japan, Germany and South Korea, which already host U.S. forces, would be expected to pay five to six times as much as they do now.
Such a plan is meant to address Trump’s belief that allies are often free riders when it comes to U.S. defense and that they should do more to fund their own security. This is coupled with the president’s tactic of encouraging Japan to increase purchases of U.S. military hardware while suggesting a future diminished role for America in the region.
However, the president’s concerns about the Japan-U.S. defense relationship do not end with cost issues. He also thinks it lacks reciprocity. According to accounts, Trump believes that Washington bears too much responsibility in the relationship given that the U.S. is required to come to Japan’s aid in the event of an attack while Tokyo is not obliged to do the same for its partner.
The truth is, Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s leadership has moved in the direction of addressing Trump’s unease, albeit slowly given the constraints of its democratic system. While one of the original objectives of the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the U.S. was to take away the need for Japan to rearm, in recent years Tokyo, at the urging of Washington, has taken steps toward bolstering the role of the Self-Defense Forces to help secure itself and the peace of the Indo-Pacific region.
In 2015, legislation was enacted that enables Japan to engage in collective self-defense and widens and deepens the scope of the SDF’s joint operations with the U.S. military. Abe is also pushing to revise the pacifist postwar Constitution to formalize the legal status of the SDF and put an end to the decades-old debate on their legality.
These politically unpopular moves by Abe — polls show that 54 percent of the Japanese public oppose amending the Constitution under his leadership — can be seen as another sign that Tokyo continues to be a rock-solid ally of Washington. For decades, Japan has been an important U.S. partner and contributor to the postwar order, lending its geopolitical support to the causes of freedom and human rights while consistently ranking among the world’s top foreign aid donors.
It bears mentioning that the Japan-U.S. security partnership provides the U.S. with another advantage that arguably overrides in value the relationship’s perceived costs and burdens. Japan’s strategic geography serves as a natural aircraft carrier off the coast of a Northeast Asian neighborhood that is home to states that are hostile to U.S. interests, i.e., China, North Korea and Russia. By hosting forward-deployed U.S. forces, Japan contributes to the deterrence of adversaries and serves as a key launching point for American operations in the Indo-Pacific.
Trump is right to bargain hard for U.S. financial interests and this needed approach was all too often missing in past administrations. Yet, it should not come at the expense of overriding security imperatives. Both Japan and the U.S. are well served by their defense partnership. As with all relationships, it needs to be managed to fit to the times so that it may continue to ensure the security and prosperity of a rapidly rising part of the world where Washington and Tokyo will continue to have interests for generations to come.
Ted Gover writes on foreign policy and is director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.