Is W. German Navy signaling a new tack in foreign policy?

The United States is eager to claim the forthcoming voyage of four West German ships to the Indian Ocean as support for stepped-up American naval patrols in the region.

And the visit of West German Defense Minister Hans Apel to the Pacific has also raised questions about West German expansion of its foreign policy.

But the West German government, aghast as usual at such as activist reading of its intentions, has rejected all claims to a more assertive foreign policy. A Defense Ministry spokesman stressed that the April 29 to Aug. 8 naval maneuvers through the Suez Canal to the Arabian Sea, were planned last spring, long before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser asked the visiting Dr. Apel to send ships even farther -- to the Australian coast. And New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon told Mr. Apel that Bonn must play more of a role in Asia.

Acutely aware of the revival of World War II memories stirred by any flexing of its strong Navy and Army, the West German government eschews any independent foreign policy or military role outside Europe. So Mr. Apel rejected Australia's request to wave the West German flag off of Perth as incompatible with Bonn's foreign policy.

Japan understands this sensitivity as Dr. Aspel found out on the first stop of his Pacific trip. Tokyo, as eager as Bonn to forestall memories of World War II, has been resisting American nudges to strengthen its small "self-defense forces" to become a regional military power. But even Japan, like Australia and New Zealand, would like to see greater Pacific engagement by West Germany.

All three countries have expressed interest in purchasing West German weapons. Australia -- which has already bought 101 Leopard tanks from Germany -- and New Zealand are looking at the West German frigate F122 and the joint West German-British-Italian 155mm howitzer. Even Japan, despite its own efficient technology, is said to be interested in buying the 155mm howitzer, the Roland missile, and the Gepard flak system. Although hesitant to commit its own military forces, West Germany has no reservations about selling weapons to allies.

Among other disclaimers of any expanded West German naval role in the Indian Ocean, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt pointed out in a general policy statement of the end of February that the West German Navy sends training ships to foreign seas every year. The training ship "Germany" is just now ending such a cruise in the Mediterranean after visiting Yugoslavia.

The three-month summer cruise of the two destroyers and two support ships is scheduled to include friendly visits to ports in Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Kenya.

The conservative opposition here has criticized Mr. Schmidt for his modesty about the West German Navy. Chancellor-candidate Franz-Josep Strauss has been urging accelerated construction of frigates and an expanded role of the Navy in the Atlantic.

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