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International Relations

Japan braces for defense demands from Trump at summit

Strikes on Syria reopen door for appeals to buy more arms and put boots on the ground

American B-1B Lancer bombers participated in airstrikes on Syrian targets in response to chemical weapons use. In past Middle East interventions, the U.S. has urged Japan to step up its military contribution.   © AP

TOKYO -- Japan is watching for clues of U.S. President Donald Trump's next move in Syria after last week's military airstrike by Western powers, as American involvement in the Middle East has a history of influencing Japanese defense policy.

The matter will loom large as Trump receives Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the Mar-a-Lago resort in the U.S. state of Florida for talks beginning Tuesday. The summit was already set to be eventful, as the leaders face pressing issues related to bilateral trade as well as diplomacy with North Korea. The U.S. president also has been leaning on Japan to buy large quantities of American defense equipment.

Divining Trump's intentions from his sometimes opaque or contradictory statements can be difficult, adding to the challenge for Tokyo policymakers.

Abe has expressed support for the "resolve" that prompted Friday's strike by the U.S., U.K. and France on facilities belonging to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which is accused of conducting a chemical attack April 7 on civilians in the country. But "there is almost nothing Japanese defense authorities can do at present," a Ministry of Defense official said. "Naturally, we're highly concerned and are gathering information."

During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Japan delivered roughly $13 billion in economic support for the U.S.-led coalition under the administration of then-Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu, but was unable to provide on-the-ground support.

Criticism on that front helped spur a law the following year that let Japan deploy its Self-Defense Forces abroad in United Nations peacekeeping operations. Hopes also ran high at the time that the U.N. would play a critical role in world diplomacy following the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union.

Further changes to Japanese policy came after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S. The administration of then-Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, which heavily valued Japan's alliances, arranged special anti-terrorism measures allowing the SDF to provide logistical support for American forces, including through naval refueling.

In 2003, with U.S. and British forces waging war in Iraq, Japan faced calls to put "boots on the ground." The Koizumi administration enacted further measures allowing deployment of the Ground Self-Defense Force for humanitarian aid and other operations.

Security legislation enacted in 2015 under Abe gave Japan the ability to support the military of other countries without passing special measures as the Koizumi government did.

In Washington, which appears to be dropping the mantle of "global policeman," many already call for Japan to shoulder more defense costs. As the Syrian civil war exacerbates tensions between Russia and the U.S., France and Britain, the impact may reverberate on Japan's budget as well as its policies.

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