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Trump demands Japan and South Korea pay for nuclear umbrella

US president's obsession with money puts long-standing relationships at risk

During meetings with President Trump, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pointed out the Japan already covers more than 80% of the cost of hosting U.S. troops. (Nikkei Montage/ Source photo by Reuters and Shinya Sawai) 

TOKYO -- President Donald Trump believes security alliances with other countries are U.S. liabilities rather than assets. 

Acting on this outlandish view, Trump is seeking to force U.S. allies to pay not just the cost of keeping American military troops stationed abroad but also to pay part of the bill for core U.S. military operations, including maintaining its "nuclear umbrella."

The Trump administration, in talks with South Korea over the stationing of U.S. troops in the country, is demanding that Seoul pay five times more than it does now, according to U.S. media reports. It also looks likely to demand that Japan cough up around four times more in host-nation support, in talks slated for later this year.

Tokyo cannot provide much more: As of fiscal 2015, it already shouldered more than 80% of the cost of stationing U.S. forces in Japan, the Defense Ministry estimates. The George W. Bush administration put the figure at around 75%, while South Korea paid about 40%. 

For the 2019 budget, Japan shelled out 390 billion yen ($3.6 billion) to cover the cost of U.S. military operations in the country, ranging from utilities and housing repairs at U.S. bases to social welfare benefits for civilian employees at bases. 

"If we have to pony up additional money, we will probably have to pay the salaries of U.S. troops here, which would mean they become something like mercenaries hired by Japan," said a Japanese security policy official. 

Trump seems dead serious in his demand that U.S. allies pay the full cost -- and then some -- of hosting American troops. During his meetings with Trump, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to reason the president out of this position, pointing out that Japan already covers more than 80% of the cost. 

Each time Trump appeared to acknowledge Abe's point but then complained about the current state of affairs in their next meeting, according to Japanese officials. 

Maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent requires the U.S. to operate a wide range of weapons systems, including bombers.   © Reuters

Trump's effort to squeeze more money out of host countries could have drastic implications for U.S. allies and the global security landscape.  

The Trump administration is demanding that South Korea cover not only the cost of the U.S. military presence, but part of the cost of the U.S. nuclear and conventional weapons used to defend the country, according to multiple diplomatic sources. 

To be sure, the U.S. nuclear umbrella -- the protection afforded to allies by its nuclear arsenal -- is costly. Maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent requires the U.S. to operate and maintain a wide range of weapons systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles on the U.S. mainland, nuclear warheads deployed overseas and bombers to carry them, and nuclear submarines armed with nuclear missiles. 

The U.S. must also maintain a sprawling and complex control system to target potential adversaries worldwide and keep its nuclear weapons in a constant state of readiness. In addition to its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. also operates aircraft carriers, aegis destroyers and a variety of aircraft around the world to monitor potential threats. 

The Trump administration is demanding that U.S. allies shell out more for the benefits they receive from these costly operations. But if Washington presses too hard, many may rethink their relationship with the U.S., undermining Trump's efforts to "make America great again."

The primary objective of the U.S. nuclear umbrella is to protect the U.S. While it is true that U.S. allies also benefit from the American nuclear capabilities, apportioning "fair shares" of the cost is impossible. 

A U.S. aircraft carrier sails with Japanese escort ships: The U.S. Navy operates worldwide to monitor potential security threats.    © Reuters

If the Trump administration wants U.S. allies to foot the bill for nuclear protection, those allies should have the right to ask for detailed information on U.S. nuclear capabilities and to weigh in on U.S. military operations in and around their land, sea and airspace.

The U.S. has never provided detailed information about its nuclear arsenal, even to its closest allies, with the exception of a few European countries that share its nuclear weapons systems. This information is critical to the survival of the nation and subject to the highest levels of secrecy. Even if its allies agree to pay more for U.S. nuclear deterrence, Washington is hardly likely to share such sensitive information. 

To U.S. allies, this would seem an instance of "taxation without representation."  Some may decide their interests are better served by having their own nuclear arsenals. 

In a survey conducted by Gallup Korea in September 2017, 60% of respondents voiced support for the idea of South Korea possessing its own nuclear arms. Last year major South Korean media outlets, including Korea Joongang Daily, published opinion pieces discussing this option. 

If U.S. allies start arming themselves with nuclear weapons, the global nuclear nonproliferation regime will crumble, weakening the case against countries such as North Korea and Iran possessing such arms themselves.

This would be a nightmare for Japan, which has stuck to its three nonnuclear principles: not to build nuclear weapons, possess them or allow them in the country. 

How should South Korea and Japan respond to Trump's pressure? To avoid setting the precedent of paying for the U.S. nuclear umbrella, Tokyo and Seoul should insist on focusing the security cost negotiations strictly on the expenses of U.S. troops stationed in their countries. They should propose separate talks over the costs of the nuclear umbrella and U.S. conventional weapons systems.

These proposals amount to buying time until after the U.S. presidential election in November. If Trump is reelected, Japan and South Korea will have to take more drastic action: joining forces with NATO allies to resist Trump's agenda. 

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