Another meeting between a U.S. secretary of defense and Japanese minister of defense took place February 3 and 4, as a show of the closeness between the two allies and a message to the world about the strength of the bilateral relationship.
In several respects, this meeting was different than previous ones. James N. Mattis is only the second secretary of defense who until recently was a general in the military, the first being George Marshall some sixty-seven years ago. Becoming the civilian head of the Pentagon required a special waiver by the U.S. Senate, out of respect for the principle of civilian control of the military. Known as the “Warrior Monk,” Mattis, a confident, well-read, former four-star who retired in 2013, was easily confirmed in a 98-1 vote in the Senate.
The meeting was also important because it was Mattis’s first trip abroad as secretary of defense, suggesting the importance the new Donald J. Trump administration places on Asia, and in particular on Japan. It was Mattis’s first trip to Japan since he served here as a 2nd lieutenant in the 3d Marine Division on Okinawa in the early 1970s, a place he said he remembered fondly.
Tensions in the region have only worsened, however, during the decades in the interim, primarily due to unsettling behavior by both North Korea and China, a fact both he and his counterpart, Defense Minister Inada Tomomi, emphasized.
Unfortunately, the meeting was quite unremarkable in that it failed to introduce specifics, which insiders have told the author neither of them possess. As an expert on the bilateral alliance, I worry, therefore, that the two governments are not appropriately addressing important issues that need to be tackled now, not only in light of the immediate challenges to peace and security but for the sake of long-term relationship as well.
Many of these issues center on the question of correctly assessing what contributions Japan is indeed making to the alliance, and what else it can do. This is driven by then-presidential candidate Trump’s assertions that if Japan did not pay more, that he would remove U.S. troops from Japan, where a nominal 50,000 are forward-deployed.
While Mattis seems to have handled the concerns raised by Trump’s repeated campaign rhetoric skillfully, even calling the host nation support (HSN) scheme the two countries have worked out over the past four decades as a “model” for other countries, it is far from a model and has caused friction over the years, especially within Japan.
For example, most Japanese, while appreciating the alliance, also feel that they are paying too much HSN, which has been commonly called the “sympathy budget,” and often compare it to the figures of other countries in both actual dollar amounts as well as percentages of basing costs. However, Japan, which receives the protection of the greatest military in the world for a mere few billion dollars annually, can pay more—much more. But should it?
There is much waste in the stationing of U.S. forces in Japan, on both the U.S. side as well as the Japanese side. Before Japan agrees to pay more, the two countries should take a hard look at the actual costs and agree to mutually eliminate waste before any additional funds are allocated. They will find that costs can greatly be reduced. High on the list of waste are redundancies on U.S. bases—unnecessary facilities, personnel (especially U.S. civilian personnel), and services—and the costs of too many bases in the first place. There are many other things that can be reduced on the Japanese side, too, and indeed other arguments, which space does not allow for here, can be made—for which this writer concurs—that Japan receives the overwhelming share of the benefits of the payments it nominally makes.
In any case, all remaining U.S. installations in Okinawa should be made joint use with the Japan Self-Defense Forces, under Japanese control. This would expedite the reduction in costs through consolidations and reductions, as well as to send a strong message strategically, strengthen the relationship militarily through increased interoperability, and improve foundations politically by having Japanese officials in charge. U.S. forces would become tenants with the day-to-day management in the hands of the Japanese side. The U.S. military could focus on operational concerns, rather than the political problems associated with our presence. Unnecessary U.S. personnel, both military and especially civilian, could be reassigned back to the U.S. or elsewhere.
Another way Japan can address the issue of burden-sharing is to immediately contribute to the patrolling of the Indo Asia-Pacific region by combining efforts with the U.S. Navy-Marine Corps team in the form of the Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU). Currently, the 31st MEU, based out of Okinawa as part of an Amphibious Ready Group (located in Sasebo), operates in a region that comprises 52 percent of the earth’s surface. The United States has seven MEUs, six of which are based out of the U.S. east and west coasts. Only the 31st is located outside of the United States full time.
While the other six units can regularly rotate to retrain and reequip, the 31st MEU, which responded to the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami from Malaysia and Indonesia where it was deployed for training and other purposes, is much busier. Japan, along with Australia, therefore, could each provide three ships to make a total of nine vessels when matched with the U.S. Navy ships. The three nations could then form three combined international ARGs and patrol on a rotating basis, living together, training together, and sweating together.
The MEUs are essentially like a police officer who patrols the neighborhood. They are a force for good, and like a constable who provides a deterrent to crime, the MEUs are a deterrent to war and put weaker regional countries at ease. No matter what interpretations are placed on the limits of the role of the SDF, this is a mission it can certainly perform. Importantly, there is a wealth of training opportunities and confidence-building measures the highly professional and capable SDF can be a part of during these multilateral patrols to increase Japan’s visibility and positive influence in the region. Furthermore, not only will this help affected countries, but it will also be a direct, unquestionable commitment by Japan to the bilateral security relationship with the United States, which is struggling over the question as how to stabilize the western Pacific region.
What the meeting needed was specifics like the above to truly move the alliance forward and to ward off political pressures in both countries now and down the road that thrive on friction.
Robert D. Eldridge is a former tenured associate professor of U.S.-Japan relations at Osaka University and served as the political advisor to the Marine Corps in Okinawa from 2009-2015. He is the co-editor of the forthcoming The Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force: The Search for Legitimacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).