Japan, U.S. to begin talks on host nation support, possibly this week

Japan and the United States will begin negotiations as early as this week on a cost-sharing agreement for hosting American troops in the Asian country, diplomatic sources said, with Washington expected to pressure Tokyo to significantly increase its contribution.

With the U.S. presidential election just a month away and Republican incumbent Donald Trump trailing Democratic rival Joe Biden in the polls, the countries may opt to sign a tentative one-year deal instead of the usual five-year arrangement, the sources said.

The working-level talks are slated to begin after a meeting of Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and their Australian and Indian counterparts to be held Tuesday in Tokyo.

Due to travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, the negotiations for the agreement will likely take place via video link.

Around 54,000 American troops are stationed in Japan under a 1960 security treaty, allowing them to respond quickly to contingencies in a region where China is increasing its military clout and North Korea is developing nuclear-armed ballistic missiles.

They are obligated to protect Japan from threats together with the country’s Self-Defense Forces, and in return Tokyo shoulders about 200 billion yen ($1.9 billion) annually including on-base utility fees, civilian labor costs and expenses related to relocating military drills.

The agreement is renegotiated every five years to determine the scope of costs covered under host nation support. The current deal expires in March.

Trump has criticized the alliance as one-sided, saying in June 2018 that “if Japan is attacked, we will fight World War III…but if we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch it on a Sony television.”

According to a book by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, published earlier this year, the president has asked Japan to quadruple its contribution to $8 billion annually.

That would largely be in line with U.S. negotiations with South Korea in which Washington has demanded a more than fivefold increase in host nation support. The countries began talks for a new agreement on base cost-sharing in September last year and have yet to reach a deal.

Faced with rising social security costs and saddled with the worst fiscal health among major economies, Japan hopes to avoid such demands by convincing the United States that it is contributing in other areas, including paying some of the cost to relocate about 4,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa Prefecture to Guam.

The negotiations will be an early test for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who as his predecessor Shinzo Abe’s chief Cabinet secretary was responsible for coordinating domestic policy but is thought to be inexperienced in foreign policy and defense matters.

Japan had planned to sign a renewed agreement by the end of the year so that it could include the expenses in a draft of the state budget for fiscal 2021.

But with the possibility that Biden could beat Trump in the Nov 3 presidential election and upend the deal, one Japanese government source said a one-year deal “could be an option.”

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