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Editorial: Japan must take Trump's security treaty musings seriously, but coolly

U.S. President Donald Trump is once again making waves with remarks on the Japan-U.S. security, claiming publicly that his country is bearing an unfair share of the burden for the defense of Japan.

At a news conference following the recent Group of 20 summit of major economies in Osaka, western Japan, Trump told reporters that he had been pressing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to revise the bilateral security treaty "for six months."

Observers tend to see Trump's string of comments as designed to please audiences at home as the United States gears up for the 2020 presidential election. Indeed, the blatant conflation of trade and security issues in support of his America First ideology is consummately Trumpian. That being the case, to take his words too much at face value risks falling into the Trump trap and being pressed into major concessions in Japan-U.S. trade talks.

However, it would be equally unwise for the Japanese government to dismiss the president's musings as "unofficial remarks." There exists a real risk that Trump's statements will spread misconceptions about the bilateral security treaty among his support base. They may also plant the seeds of extreme views in Japan, including on severing this country's security and defense ties with the United States.

The Japan-U.S. defense treaty went into effect in 1952 under the premiership of Shigeru Yoshida, who chose to entrust the U.S. with ensuring postwar Japan's security. A revision in 1960 explicitly committed Washington to defend Japan if the latter was attacked -- a provision that remains the bedrock of the defense pact.

Trump's comments have targeted the fact that the duty of defense is unidirectional. But this ignores the fact that the military bases which Japan provides for U.S. forces on its territory are a linchpin of Washington's strategy in East Asia. What's more, the president has failed to acknowledge that Japan is paying far more for these bases than other U.S. allies shell out for equivalent installations on their territories.

It is important to note that the U.S. is steadily leaving its role as global policeman behind. Security policy has to match the changing international situation.

Nevertheless, it would be divorced from reality to say that now is the time for Japan to counter the United States by leaning hard into its own brand of nationalism tied to ideas of complete defense self-sufficiency and even developing nuclear arms. Amid the remnants of the Cold War and surrounded by nuclear states, Japan cannot stand on military might alone. Seizing Trump's words as a pretext for pushing change to Japan's pacifist Constitution also requires an untenable logical leap.

In the post-Cold War era, the Japan-U.S. alliance was redefined as a public good in the Asia-Pacific, contributing to the region's peace and security. If Trumpian pressure weakens that structure, that would be welcome news in Beijing as China continues to challenge the U.S.-led international order.

Alliances become stronger as the parties' citizens understand and appreciate the treaties. Now is the time for measured discussion on how to optimize the Japan-U.S. relationship.

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