THE decision by Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone to break the 1-percent-of-GNP limit on Japanese defense spending, though dramatic in its symbolism, only serves to accelerate a trend that has acquired momentum in recent years: Japan is slowly attaining a military capability commensurate with its enormous economic might. At first glance, the implications of exceeding the 1 percent ceiling may not appear significant. The official increase pushes Japanese spending from 0.993 percent of gross national product up to only 1.004 percent. Compared with the countries of Western Europe, which on the average spend 4 to 5 percent of their GNP on defense, Japanese expenditure still seems meager.
But because Japan has the second-largest economy in the world, 1 percent of GNP devoted to defense is a lot of money any way you look at it. At the current exchange rate, Japan is planning to spend the equivalent of about $22 billion on defense this year. This figure places it among the top five military powers in the world.
Moreover, for the past decade Japan's expenditure on defense has increased yearly by about 6 percent, far exceeding the levels of Western European nations. Mr. Nakasone's overall budget for fiscal 1987 rises only 0.02 percent over the previous year, but the increase for defense is set at a whopping 5.2 percent.
Tokyo has already begun to translate this growing expenditure into an impressive array of military hardware that would be the envy of most nations. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is developing a new support fighter plane, the FSX. Japanese Air Self-Defense Force pilots who conducted test flights of the FSX called the Mitsubishi fighter planes ``equal to those of the US, if not better.''
Last summer's launching of the H-1 rocket not only opened the door to the international satellite launching market for Japan, but was a reminder that if someday Tokyo wanted to go nuclear it will already be able to deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles.
And now that the defense spending limit has been erased, proposals for ever more sophisticated weapons systems will be put on the table. No longer restrained by budget ceilings, the three branches of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces will push even harder for their share of the bigger defense pie. Much like the interservice rivalries that take place in the Pentagon, the result will be rising defense costs and more weapons.
Although this military buildup has taken place within the context of the United States security umbrella, there is no guarantee that present defense arrangements will remain indefinitely.
US-Japanese trade relations, already as strained as they are, might become worse, leading to even greater mutual suspicions. The US Congress, burdened by a huge budget deficit, might be tempted to cut funds for defense, creating a strategic vacuum in the Pacific waiting to be filled.
A future Japanese prime minister not restrained by the 1 percent defense ceiling and no longer wishing to play the role of America's junior partner might be more than happy to fill the void.
Problems in the Pacific are already sufficiently complicated that the last thing the world needs is to contemplate the future prospect of another military superpower. As Japanese defense expenditure continues to rise, however, this is the future we will be increasingly forced to contend with.
Stuart Lloyd Pardau is a writer and a lecturer in international politics at Osaka Gakuin University, Japan.