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International relations

Japan squeezed on US military base funding in election year

Tokyo says current contribution to hosting costs is already close to limit

American planes at the Tokyo-area Yokota Air Base: Japan already covers a larger share of the cost of hosting U.S. troops than other countries. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

TOKYO -- Japan has wrapped up two days of negotiations with the U.S. on cost-sharing for American forces stationed here, with Tokyo arguing that it has little room to go higher in response to Washington's pressure for more money.

This marked the first round of talks on the next five-year agreement on host-nation support, to begin in fiscal 2021.

The negotiations are expected to go into full swing after the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election. They will continue under President Donald Trump's administration regardless of the outcome of the vote, as Trump's current term does not end until January.

On Thursday and Friday, senior foreign affairs and defense officials "exchanged views on mutual contributions to the alliance" during the video meetings, the U.S. Embassy in Japan said.

Trump has long insisted that allies contribute what he calls their "fair share" of security costs. Japan already pays for much of the expenses covered by the current arrangement and has little room to go higher without an expansion of the deal that would likely be politically unpopular.

U.S. service members at a physical training session in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. Japanese host-nation spending on American forces peaked in fiscal 1999. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

Japan maintains that the costs are "appropriately divided based on the agreement between the Japanese and U.S. governments," Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told reporters Friday.

Even before he took office in 2017, Trump had said Japan should pay the full cost of hosting American forces. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton wrote in his memoir that he had passed along a demand from Trump in 2019 for $8 billion a year in support. That is more than four times the current annual sum.

Japan has paid a larger share of expenses than other countries where American troops are stationed. A 2004 report by the U.S. Department of Defense found that Japan covered 74% of stationing costs, compared with 40% for South Korea and 32% for Germany. Japan's Ministry of Defense estimated the nation's share of hosting costs in fiscal 2015 at 86.4%.

Under the current deal reached in late 2015, Japan agreed to pay 946.5 billion yen ($8.99 billion) over five years. The fiscal 2020 budget earmarked 199.3 billion yen for host-nation support.

To counter the pressure, Tokyo looks to use bargaining chips such as contributing to other elements of the American security strategy, with a planned U.S. satellite network cited as one potential candidate.

The talks have been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. A pause for the U.S. election would leave just over a month until Japan compiles its fiscal 2021 budget by year-end. The budget is to reflect the new cost-sharing agreement. It has been suggested that the two sides could strike a one-year interim deal if they cannot agree on the details now.

The host-nation support arrangement dates back to 1978. As inflation and a strengthening yen increased the financial burden of keeping American troops here, Japan agreed to cover 6.2 billion yen in labor costs for its on-base staff.

Shin Kanemaru -- then the director-general of the Defense Agency, the predecessor to the Defense Ministry -- called this an omoiyari yosan, or "sympathy budget," which remains a common nickname for what is formally known as host-nation support.

The scale and scope of the support broadened from there. The funds were initially given under the Status of Forces Agreement governing the American military presence in Japan. But a separate deal was concluded for the first time in 1987, under which Tokyo began covering costs for which Washington had been responsible under SOFA, such as staff salaries and utilities.

In 1996, a bilateral committee to discuss reducing the U.S. military presence in Okinawa reached a deal for Washington to return 11 facilities, including the Futenma airfield, with Japan paying for relocation of training sites. The Japanese side also covered some expenses involved in the realignment, such as moving American Marines to Guam.

The host-nation support payments peaked at 275.6 billion yen in fiscal 1999 and have trended lower since. Past agreements drew fire for covering recreational facilities such as golf courses and movie theaters.

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