WASHINGTON — Seeking to deepen their defense cooperation, the United States and Japan will soon sign a new five-year agreement on sharing the cost of the American military presence in Japan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday.
Speaking at the outset of a virtual conference between the U.S. and Japanese foreign and defense ministers, Blinken said Tokyo and Washington also will sign a deal on collaborating more closely in research and development of defense-related technologies, including ways to counter threats from hypersonic weapons.
The agreement on a new formula for sharing the cost of the American military presence in Japan ends a Trump-era dispute that had been a significant irritant in U.S.-Japan relations. Blinken said the new deal will enable greater investment in the readiness of both countries’ forces and improve their ability to operate together.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who participated virtually from his home because he is recovering from a COVID-19 infection, said the U.S.-Japan alliance is increasingly important.
“We’re meeting against a backdrop of increased tensions and challenges to the free, stable and secure Indo-Pacific region that we both seek — challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and by the coercive and aggressive behavior of the People’s Republic of China,” Austin said.
“We remain grateful for the support that Japan continues to provide U.S. forces deployed there and for an extraordinary level of mutual cooperation across the full spectrum of military capabilities,” he added.
Concerns about China’s growing military might were manifested in the signing of a defense agreement earlier Thursday between Japan and Australia, the first such pact Japan has sealed with any country other than the United States.
Thursday’s talks could be complicated by the surge in coronavirus cases. Japan asked the U.S before the talks began to lock down American military bases on its soil due to the spread of COVID-19.
That request was made to Blinken by Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi in a one-on-one phone call before they joined Austin and Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi for the virtual conference. None of the four officials mentioned it directly in their introductory statements.
Speaking prior to the four-way conference, Hayashi said Blinken had promised the U.S. would take utmost efforts to ensure people’s health, but it was not immediately clear if a base curfew would be imposed. U.S. Forces in Japan would not comment on the request, but said a team was carefully monitoring cases and trends.
The U.S. military has vowed to take more stringent measures, including requiring all personnel, even those vaccinated, to wear masks on base until a third negative coronavirus test.
American forces have been criticized after a spike in coronavirus cases in areas where they are based in large numbers, including Okinawa and Iwakuni, both in southern Japan. COVID-19 cases among U.S. Forces in Japan now total 1,784, about a third of them on Okinawa, according to USFJ. Iwakuni has reported 529 cases.
Yet Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s government clearly sees a benefit to the American military presence and shortly before Christmas agreed to a new cost-sharing pact with the United States that is expected to be formally signed today in Tokyo.