No country is more important to US strategic interests in Asia and the vigor and stability of the West than Japan. Hence it is fitting that President Reagan has sought to establish a strong rapport and understanding with the Japanese.
Past American presidents have occasionally irritated Tokyo through diplomatic ineptness. Mr. Reagan stumbled recently when he announced a lifting of the Soviet grain embargo without consulting America's Far East ally. The slight was noticed. By all accounts, however, the President acquitted himself well during the recent visit to Washington of Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki. Despite recent misunderstanding, the two leaders seemed to hit if off well -- a conclusion borne out by the fact that Mr. Suzuki spent more time with the President than planned. Their expressed desire to maintain a warm, personal friendship bodes well for preserving good Japanese-American ties.
This is not to say there won't be continuing differences of approach. But far more unites the United States and Japan than divides them, notably a two-way trade that today exceeds $50 billion a year and a common interest in thwarting Soviet ambitions in Asia. One area of strain is defense and precisely how much Japan should contribute to it. The US would like Japan, now the second industrial power in the world, to bear a bigger share of the burden. The Japanese point to constitutional restraints and the fact that they are generously boosting economic assistance to countries that have security problems.
Wisely, the Reagan administration avoided agitating the issue head-on during Prime Minister Suzuki's visit. The men discussed the matter but confined themselves to generalities. Mr. Suzuki pledged that his nation would make greater efforts to improve its defense capability, and it will now be left to defense experts on both sides to work out details. Significantly, too, there is less emphasis now on how much money Japan should spend and more on what needs to be done regarding a division of labor.That is a constructive approach. Among the things the Japanese can do, for instance -- without violating their antiwar Constitution -- is to conduct their own air defense and to provide naval protection for a large area around Japan and in sea lanes extending as far as 1, 000 miles from Japan. This would be a substantial help now that American ships have been reassigned from the western Pacific to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf region -- to protect, it might be added, vital Japanese as well as Western economic interests.
Mr. Suzuki must take into account the deep pacifism of the Japanese people and the concern of neighboring Southeast Asian countries about the potential resurgence of Japanese militarism. That Japan seeks to make its contribution to peace more through economic than military means is in fact commendable and welcome. But times have changed, the Soviet Union is stronger militarily than ever before, and the West must seek ways of assurign the strength and viability of the democratic nations. It is not unreasonable to ask Japan to play a larger defense role. We are gratified to see Japan accepting the chal lenge.