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Japan, US start formal talks on cost-sharing for American troops

In this Aug. 10, 2017 file photo, the national flags of Japan and the United States are held during the opening ceremony of a bilateral drill on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The Japanese government said Wednesday it has kicked off formal negotiations with the United States on a fresh cost-sharing agreement for its hosting of American troops, with diplomatic sources suggesting Washington is not asking for a massive increase in Tokyo's burden.

    The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump had been expected to seek a bigger contribution, but the demands may have become more reasonable following his election loss to President-elect Joe Biden.

    The two-day talks through Tuesday in Washington marked the start of full-fledged negotiations on a replacement for the agreement that determines how much Japan chips in for the roughly 55,000 U.S. military personnel stationed in the country.

    The current five-year deal expires next March.

    The countries said so-called host nation support has "played an important role for ensuring the smooth and effective activities of U.S. Forces in Japan," affirming "the importance of further enhancing the strong solidarity" of their security alliance.

    "We look forward to a mutually beneficial outcome," they said in statements released by both governments.

    According to the sources, the Japanese officials played up Tokyo's contributions through the enactment of legislation allowing the Self-Defense Forces to play a more proactive role, as well as an increased focus on outer space and cybersecurity.

    Senior officials from Japan's foreign and defense ministries traveled to the U.S. capital to participate in the formal negotiations, which were preceded by working-level preliminary talks via videoconference in October.

    While Trump has criticized the alliance as one-sided and indicated Japan should contribute more, one of the sources said the demands were "different from our expectations" and "not that surprising."

    Political experts have speculated Biden may ease pressure on Tokyo as he focuses more on collaborating with allies.

    As Japan plans to finish drafting its initial budget for fiscal 2021 by the end of December, the two countries may opt to sign a tentative one-year deal instead of the usual five-year arrangement.

    "Given they will transition to a Biden administration, it is unlikely we will agree on five full years," said a senior official of the Japanese government.

    Japan pays nearly 200 billion yen ($1.9 billion) annually in host-nation support, which covers utility and labor costs for U.S. bases as well as outlays for relocating training exercises away from populated areas.

    Under a postwar security treaty, American troops stationed in Japan are tasked with responding to contingencies in the region as well as helping defend against an armed attack on the country.

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