Tokyo and Washington have failed to narrow the gap over the spending levels of the "sympathy budget," the money that the Japanese government allocates to the US military bases in the nation, despite the current special agreement regulating the budget is running out in only a few months. While Japan seeks to halt expenditures on items including maintenance costs, the US is requesting a rise.
The failure to reach an agreement reflects a long-term conflict between the two countries. While the Tokyo-Washington alliance seems to be unbreakable, the two sides are facing a number of problems.
In fact, the sympathy budget put forward by the US had been paid by the Japanese government in the previous years.
The alliance between Tokyo and Washington has witnessed a fundamental change after the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rammed through the controversial new security bills. Previously, it was the US that helped defend Japan against possible foreign adversaries. Yet, the new security bills have lifted ban over Japan's self-collective defense, the ability to deploy armed forces when its allies are under attack. This means Tokyo will be able to defend Washington.
With Japan shifting its role from a nation in need of others' protection to a protector, the Tokyo-Washington alliance is moving toward equality.
Thus, it is understandable that the Japanese government will make some requests to Washington, for instance, cutting its spending on US military bases. The change to the alliance is expected to continue over time.
This equality has already been reflected in the Guidelines for Japan-US Defense Cooperation, which provides a general framework for the ways of "cooperation and coordination" between the two countries in both "normal circumstances" and "contingencies." The implementation of the security bills is the process of equalizing Tokyo and Washington's roles in their alliance.
Pressure from local governments is another reason for the central government of Japan to seek a budget cut. Residents of Okinawa, aiming to reduce the burden on the prefecture, have been protesting against the plan of relocating Washington's Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Henoko from its current location in Ginowan. The Governor of Okinawa Takeshi Onaga officially revoked the license his predecessor issued to build a US base within the prefecture recently.
Japan is striving to be a "normal state" in every possible way, including removing the US troop presence. The ultimate goal for the Japanese government is to remove US military forces from the nation. Although this is hardly feasible, Tokyo is still striving to realize it by requesting a cut of the sympathy budget for the US bases.
Yet, it still remains a tough task for Japan to become a "normal state" at the current stage. It is highly unlikely for the US to pull its forces from Japan. Instead, the White House will try every means to stay in the nation. It is certain that Washington, in order to relocate its Futenma into the prefecture, will request the central government of Japan to pressure the local authorities of Okinawa.
In addition, the White House is trying to foment tension in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Its motivation is quite evident - to rationalize its presence in the Asia-Pacific region. By boosting the "China threat" theory, Washington is attempting to produce uncertainty and insecurity in the region. Meanwhile, the White House boasts that it is the main force to safeguard peace and stability so that Japan may consider it necessary to keep the US forces in the nation.
The negotiation over the sympathy budget is a game between Washington and Tokyo. The White House is expected to pressure the Japanese government to stay at the current spending level in the budget. The result of the discussions remains unclear at the current stage. Yet, the conflicts over the US bases in Okinawa are expected to intensify.
[The author is director of the Department of Japanese Diplomacy in the Institute of Japanese Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.]