The United States and Japan will soon restart negotiations over “host nation support.” That’s the money Japan pays to cover part of the costs of basing U.S. forces in Japan.
If a recent Kyodo News article is correct, the Biden administration plans to ask the Japanese to increase that support from the $1.84 billion that Tokyo currently pays.
Come again? Increase?
Former President Donald Trump was absolutely savaged for asking the Japanese to pay more host nation support. He did demand a quadrupling of the payment—which is what one expected for a New York real estate man’s opening offer.
The Japanese were irked, not just because of the huge amount, but because they reckon that they’ve already paid too much. And Trump’s domestic antagonists damned him (for the umpteenth time) as an unspeakable “transactionalist”—apparently having the nerve to insist that the United States’ partners give something in return for U.S. assistance.
Now, Team Biden is apparently planning to hit up the Japanese for more money.
This writer is old enough to remember when the word “hypocrite” had a bad meaning—even in Washington (although admittedly to a lesser degree).
But that was a long time ago.
One needn’t worry about the upcoming negotiations becoming a huge point of contention in the Japan–U.S. relationship.
The Japanese will dig in their heels and refuse to pay a cent more than they already are. In fact, they may even ask to pay less—owing to Japan’s “severe fiscal condition” (a time-honored excuse for the last 25 years—despite having found $20 billion or $30 billion under the sofa cushions to pay for the ongoing Tokyo Olympic Games).
Team Biden isn’t going to press them. They aren’t those kinds of people. If the Germans could get away with telling the Biden administration to “take a hike” on the Nord Stream pipeline that benefits Vladimir Putin and sets most of Europe up for Russian blackmail, Biden’s people aren’t going to raise a fuss with the Japanese over host nation support.
How much Japanese money is appropriate is debatable. Compelling cases can be made that the current $1.84 billion is too much, just right, or not nearly enough.
This writer thinks it’s “not nearly enough”—if one is putting a price on the services of what might still be the world’s most powerful military.
But there’s something about Japan paying host nation support that isn’t right.
If a relationship is important enough to both sides, they each do whatever they can and don’t complain. And that includes each side making a good-faith effort to pay what’s necessary. Haggling over money—and a relatively tiny amount at that—can only cause trouble. That’s sort of like a married guy asking the missus to kick in an extra $50 per month to better cover his contributions. That always goes over well.
Both the United States and Japan say that the U.S.–Japan relationship is the most important bilateral relationship—“bar none” to quote former U.S. Ambassador to Japan, Mike Mansfield. And it’s hard to argue otherwise these days, with communist China on the warpath and undertaking the largest, fastest military buildup in history—despite facing no enemies.
The host nation support arrangement might have once had its day—when the Japanese were flush with cash and the United States was in financial trouble. Indeed, it was originally called the “sympathy budget”—as the Japanese were writing a check out of “sympathy” to help their American friends. Those days are over, however, and host nation support is more of an irritant than anything else.
So why even haggle at all?
Maybe the United States should cancel the negotiations and tell the Japanese that host nation support payments are no longer needed.
Instead, the United States could suggest that Japan keep the money and spend it on improving its own defense capabilities. And spending it on Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF) personnel might be a good start. The JSDF misses recruitment targets by about 25 percent each year, and that owes far more to serf-like terms of service than it does to Japan’s aging and shrinking population.
This is all about Japan doing what’s needed to improve its warfighting capabilities—which are currently inadequate.
Turn the JSDF into a force that’s able and prepared to fight—with joint capabilities (i.e., the three services can operate together), properly equipped, trained, organized, and psychologically ready for combat. And maybe use part of the $1.84 billion that isn’t going to the United States to build a joint Japan–U.S. operational headquarters in Japan?
Do all of this and it’ll be far more useful to the alliance than the periodic host nation support negotiations that amount to squeezing blood out of a turnip and that satisfy nobody.
And rather than expecting Japan to figure out how to improve its defense, the United States needs to offer detailed advice for once—while U.S. diplomats quietly notify Japan that this needs to happen.
Plenty of Japanese would likely welcome the United States speaking more directly—and in effect offering them some cover.
So, if the Biden administration wants to boost the U.S.–Japan relationship, it can cancel Japan’s host nation support payments.
Of course, the South Koreans will seek similar treatment. But that’s okay. The U.S.–South Korea relationship is no less important, even if the dynamics differ in certain respects.
These shouldn’t be hard decisions for Team Biden. The United States needs capabilities from its partners—not cash.
And if nothing else, forcing Japan to pay host nation support—of any amount—seems awfully transactional. But maybe some things are bad when Trump does them, but good when Biden does them. There’s a word for that.
Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine officer, a former U.S. diplomat, and a business executive who lived and worked for many years in the Asia/Pacific region. He served as a reserve head of intelligence for Marine Forces Pacific and was the U.S. Marine attaché, U.S. Embassy Tokyo on two occasions. He’s a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.