Photo: Anadolu Agency via AFP/Koji Sasahara

Donald Trump was not entirely wrong when he recently characterized the Japan-United States security agreement as being unbalanced in Japan’s favor and said it should be renegotiated.

“If Japan is attacked, the US will have to fight, the US will fight, but if it is attacked, Japan can just watched on Sony television,” he told an interviewer.

Trump has said things like this before but never acted on them. Very likely if he did call for the US to withdraw from the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, the Joint Chiefs would threaten to resign en masse.

So why is Trump jerking Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s chain? Probably because he can. Trump has a rather large cruel streak. It causes needless anxiety in Japan as spokesmen scramble to reassure Japanese that the linchpin of its security was safe.

Don’t worry, he didn’t really mean it.

The security treaty is basically different from typical alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Basically, it is a deal – something Trump ought to appreciate. The US promises to defend Japan; in return Japan grants bases on its home territory to use as Washington sees fit.

Trump may be correct on one aspect of the treaty, but he is wrong to suggest that it is unbalanced in Japan’s favor. For more than 50 years Japan has lived up its side of the bargain, granting bases, tolerating a large body of foreigners on its soil.

The US has never had to exercise its side (in part because of the treaty’s existence).

When the treaty was signed in 1960, Japan was bereft of any military hardware that could be used to defend itself or the US. What became the Self Defense Forces were just getting organized.

Today Japan boasts a vigorous military, including the world’s third- or fourth-largest navy. It has more destroyers than the British and French navies combined. In essence it adds about 100 warships to back up the US Seventh Fleet.

Japan is still constrained by its pacifistic constitution (written by the Americans during the occupation following World War II). But the Abe cabinet has reinterpreted the document to provide for collective defense, that is, an alliance in all but name.

The Stars and Stripes newspaper for military personnel once surveyed American ship commanders. To a man they expected that the Japanese navy would come to their rescue and defense should they get in trouble. They would break the law before the alliance.

Those American bases in Japan are not necessarily configured merely to defend Japan. In the past they have been used as staging areas for American adventures abroad, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.

The aircraft that took me to Vietnam in the late 1960s made a refueling stop at Yokota AFB outside Tokyo. It was an indication of how useful these bases were.

When Trump is not complaining that the security treaty is “unbalanced” he is complaining that the “allies” do not contribute enough money for their own defense.

Tokyo does this through what is known in Japan as the “sympathy budget,” which covers most of the cost of maintaining the bases, though not the operational costs of the fleet. This term implies that it is a sum provided that is over and above a strict reading of the treaty terms. They say that Japan is only obligated to provide “areas and bases.” They make no mention of monetary compensation.

The actual sum is open to regular negotiations, but is usually around US$2 billion a year. This is not to say that the US and Japan sides don’t quibble over the figure or that Japanese don’t complain as to why they have to pay to help provide rent-free bases for Americans to use.

Tokyo learned long ago that paying somebody else for its own defense is a fool’s game. Japan ponied up billions of dollars to support the coalition in the first Gulf War in 1991, but, consistent with past interpretation of its anti-war constitution, it provided no troops.

Tokyo was stunned at how ungrateful Americans and others in the coalition were for their generous financial support. The coalition wanted the Japanese to put some skin in the game and not just write checks.

That began an evolution in Japan’s use of its military. The Diet (parliament) passed laws that allowed Japanese to participate in international peacekeeping missions in Cambodia and elsewhere. Japanese naval oilers refueled coalition warships in the Indian Ocean and currently take part in international anti-piracy patrols off Somalia.

The Abe government unilaterally reinterpreted the constitution in 2012 to permit collective defense and enacted legislation to put this into effect, amid some of the largest peace demonstrations seen in Japan in years. One could say that the term “alliance” is no longer just a courtesy title.

When the US-Japan security treaty was signed in 1960, the main threat to Japan was a hypothetical Soviet invasion of the northern island of Hokkaido. The bulk of Japan’s armed forces are still stationed there.

As the threat of a Russian invasion has receded, Japan now faces different contingencies stemming from North Korea’s relentless march toward a nuclear-weapons arsenal, while China’s threat to southwestern islands is manifest in its challenge to Japan’s ownership of the Senkaku Islands.

In the face of an increasing aggressive China, with a rapidly growing navy, the United States is fortunate to have Japan as a de facto ally. And that is not something that one can easily place a monetary value on.

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