As Washington seeks to renew denuclearization talks with Pyongyang, US President Donald Trump is asking Japan, a longtime ally that the United States leans on for stability in the region, to pay drastically more to cover the cost of a continued US military presence in that country.
The administration has asked Tokyo to pay roughly four times as much per year to offset the costs of stationing more than 50,000 US troops there, current and former US officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy. Then-National Security Advisor John Bolton and Matt Pottinger, the National Security Council's Asia director at the time, delivered the request to Japanese officials during a trip to the region in July, the officials said.
Japan is not the only Asian ally the United States is asking to cough up more money for continued US troop presence. The officials confirmed that during that same trip, Bolton and Pottinger made a similar demand of South Korea, which hosts 28,500 US troops, asking Seoul to pay five times as much as it currently does. CNN and Reuters previously reported that Trump had demanded Seoul increase its contribution.
The move to pressure Asian allies to shell out more for the continued US presence in the region, some experts warn, could exacerbate tensions between the United States and its Asian allies, playing into the hands of rivals such as China and North Korea.
"This kind of demand, not only the exorbitant number, but the way it is being done, could trigger anti-Americanism" in some of the United States' historically closest allies, said Bruce Klingner, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation think tank and former CIA analyst. "If you weaken alliances, and potentially decrease deterrence and US troop presence, that benefits North Korea, China, and Russia who see the potential for reduced US influence and support for our allies."
One current official put it more bluntly: "it completely misunderstands the value" of alliances and runs counter to the administration's strategy of reorienting to focus on so-called great power competition with Russia and China.
The news that the White House is seeking to squeeze Tokyo and Seoul is part of the Trump administration's broader push to get allies to pony up additional money for defense. The president has long criticized European allies, in particular, for not spending enough on their armed forces. His effort appears to be working—by the end of next year, NATO allies in Europe and Canada will have added more than $100 billion to their defense spending since 2016.
Now, Trump appears to be turning his attention to the Pacific amid China's military buildup and renewed threats from North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea pay the United States billions of dollars to cover the cost of keeping tens of thousands of US troops there, primarily under bilateral special measures agreements that are traditionally negotiated every five years.
"They have to be willing to pick up a larger share of the burden, as the president has emphasized globally, not just related to South Korea," said Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defense for Asia-Pacific policy, this week, ahead of a visit by Defense Secretary Mark Esper to the region.
Under Japan's special measures agreement, which expires in March 2021, Tokyo currently pays roughly $2 billion to offset the cost of 54,000 US troops there, roughly half of which are stationed at the US air base in Okinawa. Ahead of the deadline, the administration has demanded a price hike—to roughly $8 billion, or a 300 percent increase, according to three former defense officials.
Trump has asked Seoul for a similar price hike, but the deadline for negotiations will come sooner. Last year, when Korea's five-year special measures agreement expired, Trump asked for a 50 percent increase from Seoul, which under the terms of the agreement pays roughly $1 billion to offset the cost of 28,500 US troops there. After extended negotiations, the two sides agreed Seoul would pay 8 percent over the prior year's cost but would renegotiate the agreement yearly.
As the South Korean deal expires once again this year, Trump has raised the asking price to roughly $5 billion—a 400 percent increase, a former defense official said.
"The President has been clear in the expectation that our allies around the world, including Japan and South Korea, can and should contribute more," said a senior administration official.
Other allies could face similar demands in the near future, Klingner said. The demands on South Korea are "the beginning of a new template for US demands from our allies. It'll be applied to South, then Japan, then to other areas where the US has troops," he said.
Since Japan has more time to negotiate its military agreement, Tokyo may look to Seoul for the kind of agreement it can expect to negotiate with Washington. "Tokyo is in a bit better spot, they can say, 'South Korea, you go first, and we will look for the same deal,'" the former defense official said.
However, Tokyo gave up some of its leverage in signing a trade agreement with Washington in September, the official said. Under the deal, signed by Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sept. 25, Japan agreed to ease tariffs on US agricultural products.
As Washington continues to demand allies pay more for defense, Japan is trying to "think creatively about burden sharing," for example investing in building new infrastructure at US bases in Japan or agreeing to deploy new US ground-based missiles, the former defense official said.
Japan, other experts and former officials say, has highlighted its strides in defense spending during its preliminary discussions with US officials on the next special measures agreement. Japanese officials point to their decision to purchase expensive US military equipment, including F-35 fighter jets and V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, and to fund military realignment in Okinawa as signs they are already stepping up.
Other former officials point out that it would actually be more expensive in the long run for the United States to withdraw troops from Japan, in the unlikely event an agreement isn't reached.
"If the United States were to move our armed forces out of Japan back home it would cost the US taxpayer more money," said James Zumwalt, a former senior US diplomat who is now a nonresident fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on US-Japan relations. "The United States would then need to pick up costs currently paid by Japan such as the salaries of 24,000 civilian base workers and utilities costs for military families."
Both Tokyo and Seoul pay a significant amount for US military projects in the region. Japan pays for the majority of the costs associated with three of the largest international military base construction projects since World War II, according to a 2018 report by the Congressional Research Service: the Futenma Replacement Facility in Okinawa (Japan pays 100 percent of the $12.1 billion price tag), construction at the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni (Japan pays 94 percent, or $4.5 billion, of the $4.8 billion bill), and facilities on Guam to allow 4,800 Marines to move from Okinawa (Japan pays $3.1 billion, or 36 percent of the cost).
South Korea, meanwhile, pays $10 billion, or 93 percent, of the cost of new construction at Camp Humphreys.
Japan also buys over 90 percent of its defense equipment from US companies, including Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighter jets and Boeing KC-46 tankers, according to the Congressional Research Service.
"That can't be left out of the equation," the former official said.
The latest push is not the first time the Trump administration has mulled plans to try and extract more money from its allies for hosting US troops. In March, reports emerged that the administration wanted allies to pay the full cost of the troops being hosted in their countries, plus 50 percent. Then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan later told lawmakers the administration would not move forward with the so-called 'Cost Plus 50' plan, and reports it was doing so were erroneous.
Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman and Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer