WASHINGTON — JAPAN's contribution toward the support of United States military forces based on its soil has increased substantially in recent years. But given the strength of the Japanese economy, Tokyo could afford to shoulder even more of this burden, a new congressional General Accounting Office report says. If Japan were to pay all the costs incurred by US forces, the Pentagon could save $600 million a year. ``The Japanese have a long way to go on the burden-sharing front,'' says Rep. Patricia Schroeder, head of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Installations, who requested the GAO report.
In recent years Congress has talked more and more about getting US allies to increase their contributions to cover mutual defense costs. Though this burden-sharing discussion often focuses on NATO and Western Europe, it also involves Japan, South Korea, and other allies in the Far East.
Representative Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat, and a delegation from her subcommittee visited the Pacific region last month to deliver the message that the US wants more from its military hosts. The Senate this summer approved legislation calling on President Bush to try to get the Japanese to pay the full cost of the 50,000 active-duty US military personnel based in their nation.
This full cost was $5.4 billion in 1987, the latest year for which accurate figures are available. Japan contributed $1.7 billion, or about 31 percent of this cost, under terms of a mutual security treaty it signed with the US in 1960.
In 1981, Japan's burden-sharing contribution was $711 million, at the time representing 24 percent of the total stationing cost of US troops. After adjusting for fluctuations in the dollar's value against the yen, the increase in Japan's burden-sharing was still substantial - a rise of 44 percent between 1981 and 1987, according to the GAO.
Among other things, Japan rents privately owned land and provides it free to the US for military use. It pays for environmental and noise-abatement improvements near US installations, and funds construction projects, such as family housing, that are aimed at improving the quality of life for US personnel. It also pays for some of the benefits, such as health and medical expenses, of Japanese workers employed by the US military.
``US officials in Japan are generally pleased with the level of Japanese support but believe Japan could do more,'' says the GAO. Since the late 1970s, Tokyo has gradually lengthened the list of Pentagon costs that it pays for, in response to US requests. But it resisted a US proposal last year that it pay all the yen-based costs of US forces, such as base pay for Japanese workers, electricity and other utilities, and ship repairs done in Japan.
These extra items would add $600 million to Japan's burden-sharing bill, according to US estimates, raising Tokyo's share of Pentagon stationing costs from around 30 percent to around 40 percent.
According to the GAO, US officials also believe Japan could do more in the areas of quality of life for US service personnel, aid to third-world allies, and contributions to UN peacekeeping forces.
Japanese burden-sharing must be approached cautiously, these officials say. They are concerned that pressing for more cash might cast doubt on advantages the Pentagon now enjoys in Japan, such as unlimited access to ports.
But Japan's defense contributions are sure to remain an issue with the US Congress. Japan's spending on US and its own defense forces is substantial, by some measures the third-largest military budget in the world. But this expense is only about 1 percent of prosperous Japan's gross national product, a ratio that has ``reinforced the perception that Japan is not contributing its share for the common defense,'' according to the GAO.