President Donald Trump described a security treaty with Japan as an “unfair agreement” negotiated by “stupid” American officials in which “Japan doesn’t have to help us at all” if the U.S. is attacked. But that ignores the benefits in the treaty for the U.S.
The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, which dates to 1951, gives the U.S. a strategic military presence in Japan to protect a “range of U.S. security interests in East Asia,” as explained by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in a July 2009 report.
“Those concerns include the development of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs, the presence of militant Islamic groups based in Southeast Asia, the possibility of conflict with China over Taiwan, and the overall ascendance of China as a potential challenger to U.S. influence in the region,” the CRS report said.
The president on at least two occasions in recent days has been critical of the U.S.-Japan security agreement, including in a June 26 interview on Fox Business Network prior to his trip to the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan (at about the 13:25 mark).
Trump, June 26: We have a treaty with Japan, if Japan is attacked we will fight World War 3. We will go in and we will protect them and we will fight with our lives and with our treasure. We will fight at all costs. Right? But we’re attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us at all. They can watch it on a Sony television, the attack. So, there’s a little difference – OK?
Three days later, Trump was asked at a press conference in Osaka if he was considering pulling out of the mutual security agreement.
Trump, June 29: No, I’m not thinking about that at all. I’m just saying that it’s an unfair agreement. And I’ve told [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe] that for the last six months. I said, “Look, if somebody attacks Japan, we go after them and we are in a battle — full force in effect.” We are locked in a battle and committed to fight for Japan. If somebody should attack the United States, they don’t have to do that. That’s unfair. That’s the kind of deals we made. That’s — every deal is like that. I mean it’s almost like we had people that they didn’t either care or they were stupid. But that’s the kind of deals we have. That’s just typical.
The president said he has told Prime Minister Abe that he wants to change the treaty. “[I]f we’re helping them,” Trump said, “they’re going to have help us.”
Left unsaid was how the U.S. already benefits from the treaty.
According to U.S. Forces, Japan, the U.S. currently has about 54,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan on 85 facilities throughout the archipelago — a collection of islands that make up Japan. That includes about 11,000 U.S. forces stationed at sea off the coast of Russia, North Korea and South Korea and near China.
“He views Japan too narrowly and bilaterally,” Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow and director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told us. “[T]he bases it provides us make Japan a hugely important hub for all our activities in the region. Our presence also helps anchor Japan in a solid security relationship, preventing a possible return to the dynamics of the 1930s that ultimately dragged us into World War II.”
Japan and the U.S. agreed to a security treaty on Sept. 8, 1951 — the same day that the countries also signed a peace treaty that ended the U.S. occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1952 after World War II. At the time, the Joint Chiefs of Staff insisted on the separate security agreement giving the U.S. a military presence in Japan in exchange for ending the U.S. occupation.
“[T]he proposed peace treaty must not be permitted to become effective without the coming into effect simultaneously of a bilateral United States–Japan treaty of security,” Hoyt S. Vanderberg, the then-chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force, wrote on behalf of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in an April 17, 1951, memo to Defense Secretary George Marshall. Marshall forwarded the memo to the secretary of state with a note to pay attention to particular paragraphs of the memo, including one section that said, in part, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff strongly recommend that all security provisions therein be adhered to without relaxation.”
Marshall, a few years earlier as secretary of state, devised the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for the Marshall Plan. The security treaty he supported entered into force on April 28, 1952.
James L. Schoff, senior fellow in the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Trump’s comments about the security treaty “shows an ignorance of history.” The peace and security treaties were designed to prevent Japan from reestablishing the Japanese empire.
“You come out of a war where Japan had occupied a third of China and had all of Manchuria, Korea, Taiwan,” Schoff said in an interview with FactCheck.org. “There was a Japanese empire and feeling that if we don’t neuter this country it will come back and threaten us again.”
Revised in 1960, the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security continued to allow a U.S. military presence in Japan “in exchange for a U.S. pledge to defend Japan in the event of an attack,” as explained in a 2014 paper about the security alliance written for the Council on Foreign Relations website.
That treaty was signed by Secretary of State Christian A. Herter and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Douglas MacArthur II under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the supreme commander of the Allied forces during World War II. It recognized Japan’s right to self defense, but also reaffirmed the constitutional limits placed on Japan’s military might.
“Somebody could say [the security treaty] is unfair,” Schoff said, “but we essentially wrote the Constitution that prohibits Japan from having war potential.”
During the 2016 campaign, Trump complained about the cost of the U.S. military presence in Japan. However, as we wrote at the time, both countries share the financial burden. The U.S. spends about $2.7 billion and Japan contributes $2 billion for U.S. troops in Japan, according to an Oct. 19, 2018, CRS report to Congress on U.S.-Japan relations. That report also cited the financial benefits of having troops stationed in Japan.
“U.S. defense officials often cite the strategic advantage of forward-deploying the most advanced American military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific at a far lower cost than stationing troops on American soil,” the report said.
One former defense official — retired U.S. Marine Corp. Gen. John R. Allen — co-wrote a paper in July 2016 that said the U.S.-Japan alliance remains vital to peace and stability in Northeast Asia, describing it as “imperative to addressing the rise of China and the provocations of North Korea.”
“Threats in Northeast Asia will most likely continue to diversify for the near future, and therefore the relevance of the U.S.-Japan alliance will only increase in maintaining regional stability,” Allen wrote for the nonpartisan Brookings Institute, where he is now the president.
Allen, Schoff and CRS also cited Japan’s support for U.S.-led military campaigns, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, within its constitutional limits. CRS said Japan has interpreted its constitution to allow it to “participate in noncombat roles overseas in a number of U.N. peacekeeping missions and in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.”
“The idea that Japan would just sit back and not care [if the U.S. was attacked] is simply not true nor borne out by the track record,” Schoff said. “In Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, 9/11. It has always stepped up to help have our back.”
We take no position on whether the U.S. should renegotiate the U.S.-Japan security treaty. However, the president on at least two occasions now has given a one-sided view of the treaty — its place in history and its role in advancing U.S. strategic interests in Northeast Asia.