US Defense Secretary Harold Brown has left a swirl of controversy in the wake of his 22-hour visit to Japan. He did so by suggesting in meetings with Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira and Defense Agency director Enji Kubota that he hoped Japan would increase its defense budget beyond the very modest 0.9 percent of gross national product (GNP) being submitted to the Diet (parliament) this year.
The American Cabinet minister specified no time limit and mentioned bo figures. But by merely repeating what has been a pretty consistent American attitude toward Japanese defense expenditures, he has stirred a hornet's nest that may cause the government several anxious moments during the coming budget debate in the Diet.
The reaction of Japan, which is linked to the United States through a security treaty giving the latter air and naval bases in Japan in exchange for protection against nuclear and other forms of external attack, contrasts with that of China, China is not an American ally and is only beginning to enter an implicit, vaguely defined security relationship with the US.
Mr. Brown has just been to China, where he recieved an enthusiastic welcome. The Chinese, said a high official accompanying Mr. Brown, now look on a militarily strong United States as reassuring in terms of combatting the threat of Soviet expansionism. At the same time, China's own considerable defense efforts stress self-reliance and feature domestic production of almost all items in its military inventory.
Mr. Brown came to Japan primarily to report on his visit to China and on the shared views he found there on such subjects as the meaning of the Soviet invasion Afghanistan and on the necessity of countering Soviet expansionism.
But he also took the opportunity to point out how, in the light of rapidly changing international circumtances, he hoped there could be more flexibility in Japan's defense-budget plans.
At present, the Japanese Defense Agency is hoping to increase budget appropriations by about 1/100th of 1 percent of GNP every year for the next five years. The pace could be accelerated or slowed, depending on political and economic factors; but at the end of the process, Japan's defense appropriations would still be well within 1 percent of GNP.
Japan plans to spend $9.3 billion, or 0.9 percent of GNP, on defense in the coming fiscal year (April 1, 1980, to March 31, 1981).
In light of the Ohira government's drive to decrease the persistent and worrisome deficit financing that has prevailed since the oil shock of 1973, defense authorities here had been congratulating themselves on managing to keep their 1980 budget intact, despite the drastic pruning demanded by the Finance Ministry. Welfare, defense, and overseas economic aid are the only major budget items to have survived the powerful Finance Ministry's determined onslaught.
Now comes Mr. Brown, congratulating Mr. Ohira on keeping the defense budget intact, but going on in the next breath to suggest how the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is changing the global strategic picture and how the industrialized democracies should respond to this rapidly evolving global strategic picture.
High officials accompanying Mr. Brown say they do not want the Japanese to create a military force that might be perceived as threatening by the other countries of the region. They suggest Japan could concentrate its concerns on the Soviet fortification and militarization of the southern Kurile Islands, which Japan regards in any case as its own rightful territory.
They say the Japanese could improve their air-defense and antisubmarine defense capabilities. The Japanese could also assume principal responsibility for defending maritime lines of communication in a widening radius arount their home island.
At present, the Japanese Navy has an escort capacity that extends out to about 1,000 kilometer (600 miles) from the home islands. American defense officials have not been specific as to how far they would like this radius expanded. But some have spoken of 1,000 miles.
US defense officials recognize that the primary responsibility for defending sea lanes around the world rests with the United States, with some help from its West European allies and Japan. No other country, or even combination of countries, is likely to be able to replace the American role unless it goes to the expense of building the kind of world-ranging aircraft carriers the United States possesses.
Still, Japan can certainly improve its escort capacities, the Americans aver. Japan has been doing so steadily during the past several years. American defense officials would like to see this trend continue and, if possible, accelerate.
Mr Ohira's response to the Brown approach has been to say that Japan will continue to improve its defenses in the light of changing international and domestic circumstances, at its own pace and in line with its own independent judgment.