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Japan unlikely to achieve goal of sealing tentative HNS deal by year’s end

By Hideki Kitami, Daizo Teramoto, and Yuki Nikaido


The possibility has been raised that negotiation of the agreement on Japan’s share of the cost of hosting U.S. forces in Japan (HNS, consideration budget), which will expire at the end of March 2021, may be postponed to next year. U.S. President Donald Trump, who was poised to push for Japan to assume a greater burden, was defeated in the presidential election. But that does not mean Japan can negotiate with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden. The two countries have never held HNS negotiations during a transition of power in Washington. The Japanese government may have miscalculated in forming its negotiating strategy.


Initially, a senior official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) expressed determination for a “short-term showdown” by saying: “Negotiations are not pleasant. We should finish them early just like preparations for an entrance exam.”


Japan wanted to reach an agreement in early December in anticipation of the compilation of the budget for the next fiscal year. It says it has reminded [the U.S.] of the deadline for compiling the budget many times, including at the prior online talks held in October.


The HNS consists of the labor cost of base employees, utility costs of facilities, and other costs. The Special Measures Agreement (SMA) stipulating Tokyo’s share of the burden for five years will expire, so Japan’s burden for the next fiscal year and onward needs to be decided.


Negotiations should have started around this summer. But the start was delayed by the extraordinary situation of the world being ravaged by the novel coronavirus pandemic and by the U.S. presidential election. The first round of negotiations was held in the U.S. capital of Washington D.C. on Nov. 9 and 10, which was shortly after the election. Subsequently, the senior MOFA official struck a different tone, “We want to reach an agreement, but….”


A source connected to the Ministry of Defense (MOD) revealed: “It would be difficult to reach an accord this year. Japan should tentatively earmark the same amount [of host nation support] (199.3 billion yen for this fiscal year) in the budget compilation at the end of the year.” A government source disclosed the amount requested by the U.S., saying, “It was smaller than we expected but more than double [the current amount].”


The breakdown of the requested amount and other details are not known. However, Japan seems to have been asked to shoulder a greater burden given the asking price in the first negotiations. Japan and the U.S. have been discussing the details online since then. The senior MOFA official says: “The initial proposal is meaningless since the U.S. has always overshot the mark in the first round of host nation support talks in the past.” But the official says there is no agreement in sight.


According to a government source, negotiations during the transition of a U.S. administration involve a contradiction: “Although we’re dealing with the budget for the next fiscal year and beyond, we can’t hold talks with the people who will be in government then.” The Biden administration will be launched on Jan. 20 of next year. If negotiations are postponed until then, they need to go back to square one under the new administration.


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