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International relations

US and Japan to start contentious talks over host-nation support

Tokyo weighs contribution to satellite project to counter Washington pressure

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III prepares for takeoff at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

TOKYO -- Japan and the U.S. are set to begin a twice-a-decade negotiation over host-nation support -- Tokyo's share of the cost of hosting American troops -- amid unprecedented pressure from the Trump administration for allies to pay more.

Senior foreign and defense ministry officials from the two countries are slated to meet by videoconference as early as this week. Up for discussion is the burden sharing for the five-year period beginning in fiscal 2021, with the aim being to reach a new deal by year-end.

Under the current cost-sharing agreement, which lasts until March 2021, Japan is paying a total of 946.5 billion yen ($8.98 billion), averaging out to about $1.8 billion a year.

But U.S. President Donald Trump has been pressuring American allies to contribute more financially. John Bolton, a former U.S. national security adviser, previously informed the Japanese government that Trump wants Tokyo to quadruple its payments to $8 billion a year.

Host-nation support covers base employees' wages as well as utilities and costs for maintaining and repairing housing on the bases. Japan already shoulders most of these expenses, according to the Defense Ministry. This leaves little room to significantly increase its contribution without broadening the scope of the agreement.

While Japan could pay for troop salaries and on-base entertainment facilities, the public is unlikely to accept such a move. Past agreements on host-nation support drew criticism for covering movie theaters, golf courses and the like, and Tokyo's contributions have been trending lower since fiscal 2000.

To meet Washington's likely demands for more money without adding to host-nation support itself, it has been proposed that Tokyo could provide support for other elements of the U.S. security strategy.

One potential candidate is a planned constellation of 1,000-plus satellites to detect missiles, monitor ships and handle communications. The satellite network is envisioned as a way to track supersonic weapons from China and Russia that current missile defense systems are ill-equipped to handle.

The project is expected to cost $10 billion or more, but Washington could save money if Japan produces and launches some of the satellites. The Japanese Defense Ministry's fiscal 2021 budget request earmarks just under $2 million for related research costs.

Japan's planned successor to the F-2 fighter jet, slated for deployment in 2035, is another potential bargaining chip. While Tokyo plans to lead development, it is expected to purchase key equipment from non-Japanese companies, including stealth and electronic systems.

The projected 6 trillion yen cost of the fighter program includes payments to companies supporting the project. The Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency under the Defense Ministry has internally narrowed down the candidates to Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, all American contractors, which Tokyo could use to its advantage in the host-nation support negotiations.

Actual negotiations will not begin until after the U.S. presidential election on Nov. 3. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins, renewing the deal will likely take a back seat to the transition. There is a proposal for the countries to sign a yearlong interim deal limited to fiscal 2021 if they cannot agree to a full-fledged agreement by the end of this year.

The U.S. and South Korea failed to meet their year-end deadline when negotiating over military costs in 2018. Under their deal announced by the South Korean government in February 2019, the countries decided to renegotiate the terms yearly instead of every five years. South Korea's contributions to the U.S. military presence in the country increased by 8%.

"Even if we end up going with an interim deal, we still face a difficult negotiation to avoid an increase to Japan's burden," a high-ranking Japanese official said.

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