On Monday, Bloomberg News reported that three independent sources had confirmed to them that President Trump had privately considered pulling the United States from its defense pact with Japan. At the core of his concerns were a lack of reciprocity; the United States is required to come to Japan’s aid militarily while Japan is not bound to do so for the U.S., and the costs of moving a Marine base in Okinawa.
The Japanese government quickly responded to the report. The Japan Times quoted Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga:
“There is no such talk as is mentioned in the report. We have confirmed with the U.S. president that (the report) is inconsistent with the American government’s position,” Suga told a regular briefing on Tuesday evening.
According to Bloomberg, White House communications staffers have refused to comment on the matter to the press.
The reported threat comes as Japan is attempting to speed through new trade talks with the United States. As its relationship with the United States is the cornerstone of Japanese defense policy, the threat is a potentially powerful one and may be used to exert pressure for a trade agreement.
Any such effort would be hindered by the deep unpopularity for the base movement in Okinawa. The base is being moved because the facilities are outdated and timeworn and because the locals are frustrated with both the land costs and some crimes from Marines stationed there. The President is reportedly upset by the value of the real estate being ceded, compared to the lower desirability of the land for the proposed base. Due to the disparity, he wants Japan to pay for the move.
The Japanese populace do not want the base moved, however; they want it gone. Moving the base is considered a compromise action by the Japanese government. If they are expected to pay for it, the option of simply removing the base becomes viable.
President Trump has complained about the cost of maintaining military bases abroad before. He has also questioned existing alliances and declared allied nations potential threats in order to push through tariffs. The current threat – denied not by the United States officials to press but indirectly, through the Japanese government – indicates he may still hold those concerns.
At a time when the Philippines are seeking greater Chinese and lesser U.S. ties (as indicated by their recent embrace of Huawei in direct repudiation of U.S. requests), the Diego Garcia base may have to be removed and South Korea has been attempting to forge stronger ties with China, ties with Japan would be expected to be strengthened in an effort to keep American influence high in Eastern nations.
Undermining those ties instead risks international stability and increases China’s ability to forge local ties and resist U.S. pressure on trade. It also risks throwing away a key success won by blood and tears of American sailors in World War II, the agreement – forced upon them by the victorious United States – that Japan would allow us to station troops in their nation in exchange for military protection.