- - Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Defense burden-sharing is a hot topic in Washington. No doubt stationing U.S. troops abroad is costly. It’s reasonable to ask our allies and partners to shoulder their fair share to protect against common threats. 

But Washington’s myopic focus on the bottom line fails to consider strategic contributions our allies make that advance U.S. national interests around the world. Cases in point are Japan’s military operations in the South China Sea and the Middle East, as well as Tokyo’s commitment to buy American defense equipment.

Ambassador Mike Mansfield, the former U.S. Ambassador to Japan, famously stated the U.S.-Japan alliance is “the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none.” My team of U.S. Navy officers welcomed this perspective as we embarked Japanese Navy’s Izumo flat-deck helicopter carrier. The massive 248-meter long warship was visiting Vietnam’s strategic Cam Ranh International Port to participate in a United States Navy-led humanitarian assistance exercise. Although allies regularly join the United States for military exercises, the presence of this powerful platform was not routine — it was a tangible symbol of Japan’s steadfast commitment to support United States strategic interests in the South China Sea.

At the tactical level, the participation of the Izumo and its 800-member crew enhanced humanitarian exchanges with Vietnamese forces. From a strategic standpoint, Japan’s deployment supported U.S. efforts to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific in the volatile waters off Vietnam. Best of all, it did not cost U.S. taxpayers a penny. Washington must consider these efforts as it presses allies to increase host nation financial support for U.S. troops based overseas. 

Tokyo pays approximately two billion dollars per year to support 50,000 U.S military personnel at bases around the country. According to the most recent Defense Department Statistical Compendium on Allied Contributions to the Common Defense, Japan provided 74.5 percent of the U.S. stationing costs. The Trump administration recently asked Tokyo to quadruple the amount it pays each year. Similarly, Washington is asking South Korea, which hosts 28,500 U.S. troops, to increase payments fivefold — from one to five billion dollars. It should not be surprising that the most recent talks with Seoul broke off after only 45 minutes with no resolution and a “significant difference” between the two sides.

Japan spends an average of $363.9 million USD each year on United States military equipment, and it has more defense equipment in common with the U.S. military than does any other ally. Japan National Defense Program Guidelines indicate Tokyo plans to refit the Izumo so it is capable of supporting advanced Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters in the future. This will allow U.S. military aircraft to conduct takeoff and landing training drills on the Izumo   in essence, giving the United States strategic access to an additional aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific.

Japanese burden-sharing extends well beyond dollars and cents. Its military activities in the Western Pacific help to advance United States strategic interests. Who can forget the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam in March 2018 — the first post-war U.S.  aircraft carrier to visit the country?  The Japanese port call of the Izumo 10 months earlier opened the door for the U.S. port call. Not only did Japan’s visit provide Vietnam’s government agencies with practical experience necessary to support future large deck ship visits, it allowed Japan to set the precedent with Vietnam for such a visit. Hanoi, which carefully balances its security relationships with Beijing and Washington, could represent Vietnam as open for similar port calls by all nations.

In September 2017, Vietnam hosted the first visit by a foreign submarine.  Once again, Japan was in the lead. Now that a Japanese submarine has visited Vietnam, Hanoi is likely to be more willing to allow a future U.S. submarine visit. Japan’s military collaboration with Vietnam is enabling the United States to advance its own security relationships with Hanoi.

Japan’s strategic support of U.S. interests extends well beyond Asia. In early February, Tokyo dispatched a warship to the Middle East to gather intelligence in the Gulf of Oman in response to President Trump’s call for an international maritime coalition to safeguard key shipping routes. While Japan did not formally join the coalition, U.S. ships in the area will benefit from the intelligence gathered from Japan’s presence.

Great power competition with China requires the United States to maintain robust security relations with our allies. Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy report released last June states, “allies are a force multiplier to achieve peace, deterrence, and interoperable warfighting capability.” Washington’s burden-sharing demands have the potential to damage some of our strongest relationships in Asia. While it’s fair to ask our allies to shoulder the financial burden in support of common security interests, Washington must consider all the ways our allies help to advance United States national interests. Approaching defense burden-sharing holistically highlights the non-financial ways our allies carry their share of the burden and considers their contribution to our strategic and financial interests. It is a perspective we would do well to keep in mind as the strategic environment evolves.

• Jim Hartnett is a public transit agency CEO in Silicon Valley. A lawyer, he previously served in the U.S. Navy, Naval Security Group. Christopher Sharman, U.S. Navy captain, is a national security affairs fellow at the Stanford University Hoover Institution. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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