Thank You, Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe

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An interpreter talks to members of the Japan Air Self Defense Force during a briefing at Futenma Air Base, Okinawa. Some 25,000 Japanese nationals work at U.S. bases in Japan -- and paid by the host nation.

TOKYO – Huge cuts in American defense spending will go into effect on Friday, but don’t expect major changes in the readiness or “re-balancing” of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific region. That’s thanks in large part to Japanese taxpayers, who are footing much of the bill.

Some 25,000 civilian workers at U.S. military bases across Japan are paid directly by Tokyo.  Nearly all are Japanese nationals and work in jobs ranging from interpreters to guards, administrators to mechanics. Unlike American colleagues paid by the Defense Department, the Japanese workers won’t be subject to mandatory furloughs or other cutbacks when the budget sequester kicks in March 1.

The sequester plan – if you can call it a plan – requires the Pentagon to cut spending by $46 billion through Oct. 1, the end of this fiscal year. Since cuts are mandated across-the-board, every U.S.-paid worker could be told to stay home, without pay, up to one day each week. That works out to a 20% reduction in the workforce.

Pentagon officials have warned that the furloughs, along with cuts in maintenance, training, operations and other budgets, would have a “devastating” impact on the readiness of U.S. military forces worldwide. The Defense Department employs about 800,000 civilians, altogether.

But Japanese money will ease some of the pain in the Asia-Pacific region.  More than 40,000 U.S. troops are based in Japan, including 18,000 Marines on the island of Okinawa. The U.S 7th Fleet, anchored by the carrier USS George Washington, is home-ported at Yokosuka.

Three out of four workers at the scores of U.S. bases and facilities in Japan are paid directly by the Japanese government. Tokyo spends some $2 billion a year on “host nation” payments – salaries for base workers, lease payments for landowners, funding for base improvements. What’s more, Japan has agreed to spend billions more to relocate Marine Corps bases on Okinawa, and to relocate Marines from over-crowded Okinawa to Guam.

It’s a good arrangement, says Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. It saves money for America and allows Japan to maintain a smaller military than it might need otherwise. Host-nation payments included, Japan spends about 1% of its Gross Domestic Product on defense – about a quarter the U.S. level.

“We’re getting the benefit of a forward-deployed presence in the region, and the host-nation payments smooth the hardships of the incredibly heavy American base presence on Okinawa,” Glosserman says. “Those are expenses the Americans don’t have to pay, so it works out for everybody.”

The sequester would seem to come at a bad time for U.S. interests in the region, what with North Korea testing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and China aggressively pressing its claims to Japanese-administered islands in the East China Sea.

Although money cannot be moved from one spending account to another – training money must be spent on training, maintenance money on maintenance, and so forth – it can be moved from one region to another. So far, the Asia-Pacific region seems to have the priority.

“Right now, my training and readiness accounts have not been affected. So my plans are to continue to fly, sail and work on the ground to maintain our readiness,” said Lt. Gen. Salvatore “Sam” Angelella, commander of U.S. Forces-Japan, at a press conference in Tokyo Thursday.

Planners also seem committed to continue moving more forces to the region, a major part of the U.S. “rebalance.”  On Friday — the day the sequester kicks in — a new, high-tech Littoral Combat Ship is scheduled to depart from San Diego on a long-planned deployment to Singapore.

Later in the month, two of the biggest annual joint war games in the region, Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, will start as scheduled in South Korea. Dozens of other joint training exercises scheduled for the remainder of the year in Japan, the Philippines, Australia, India, Guam and elsewhere in the region remain on schedule, as well.

That contrasts sharply with other regions. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, told Congress this week that the Navy will reduce its presence in the Middle East by one aircraft carrier and “a couple of destroyers,” will reduce the number of ships in the Southern Command region to zero by the end of the year, and will reduce its presence in waters off Africa by two amphibious warships and two frigates.

Angelella said he will meet with regional commanders in Hawaii next week – via video conference, to save money – to discuss the sequester. Even if training or readiness budgets are cut, he said, the consequences in the region might not be dire.

“The accounts don’t go to zero tomorrow,” he said. “And depending on how we are able to work that out, there will be different priorities over the world. If there’s a crisis, then that’s where the priority will be.”

And perhaps the Japanese can be thankful about that, as well.