Extending Japan's sea power: risks and rewards
The Reagan administration's encouragement of a larger military role for Japan in the Western Pacific faces rough seas in Southeast Asia.Skip to next paragraph
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Washington is concerned about the growing Soviet naval strength in the area. It wants Japan to do more to defend itself and the vital sea lanes in the region.
But other Asian nations are worried that any significant Japanese rearmament would tempt Japan to revive its World War II aim of Asian domination. Some of them also express fears that an increased Japanese naval presence might eventually prompt Washington to reduce its own naval forces in the Western Pacific.
Of particular concern to such nations, is the US policy of pressuring Japan to build up its navy to cover a defense responsibility up to a 1,000 mile perimeter.
The US insists this would be measured from Tokyo Bay. But in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, there has been concern that the zone could be measured from the southern tip of Okinawa - or, in any event, be gradually extended. This could give Japan control of important sea lanes leading toward strategic straits such as Malacca and Sunda, key points which Indonesia wants to control.
The Reagan administration remains convinced that Japan has no intention of dominating the region militarily. ''I don't think there is any indication whatsoever that the Japanese have any militaristic or offensive desire. . . ,'' said US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on his trip over the past 10 days to Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, as well as New Zealand and Australia.
And some Asians themselves argue that a stronger Japanese Navy would help prolong the US naval presence in the region by sharing defense tasks and enabling Washington to cut some of its costs. (The US allocates about 6 percent of its gross national product to defense compared to an estimated rate of about 1 percent for Japan.)
Asian concerns became public during the September visit to Washington by Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, who told television interviewers there is a danger a rearmed Japan might revive its World War II ambitions. During the October visit to Washington of Indonesian President Suharto, Indonesian officials sought US assurances that the push for Japanese rearmament would be limited.
Many Asian nations, however, recognize that there has been a gradual rise of Soviet military power in the Pacific.
According to the US Navy, some 80 Soviet surface combatant ships (destroyers, frigates, cruisers, and one helicopter carrier) are either deployed in or are deployable in the Pacific. That is up from 55 in 1968. In addition, the US Navy says the number of Soviet submarines capable of being deployed to the Pacific have risen from 105 in 1968 to 129 in today.
The US has a two-pronged answer to the Soviet naval presence in the Pacific. One is to strengthen its own naval establishments at Subic Bay in the Philippines, at Guam, and at Yokosuka and Okinawa in Japan. Another is to encourage Japan to do more of ''its share.''
If Japan did more to defend its surrounding ocean, including the nearby sea lanes for oil tankers that pass through the Malacca and Sunda straits, then US forces would be freer for deployment farther from Japan, the reasoning goes.
During his tour Mr. Weinberger discussed a range of issues, including the extent of US support to friendly nations if they were attacked by Soviet or Vietnamese forces. In Bangkok and Jakarta he declared American forces were adequate to match a growing Soviet naval presence in the Pacific and added that there had been no requests for an increase in US military activity.
But beneath the surface in some countries, questions remain over the reliability of the US military commitment, and over Japanese rearmament.