President Reagan's warm welcome of South Korea's President Chun Doo Hwan marks a new beginning in the two countries' relationship. The emphasis both presidents placed on security commitments at their Feb. 2 meeting provides a forestate of the new administration's foreign policy.
President Chun was the first leader of an allied nation to meet with President Reagan. The symbolism was intentional. Mr. Reagan reaffirmed US defense ties with South Korea and made it clear that the 39,000 American servicemen stationed there will stay on indefinitely.
Former President Carter had made a campaign pledge to withdraw US ground troops from South Korea, but reconsidered that pledge after receiving intelligence reports on buildup of North Korea's military forces. President Reagan's declaration of strong support for South Korea is meant as much as anything to deter the North Koreans.
But this may prove to be the easiest part of building a Reagan defense policy for Asia. Some of the other issues that will soon face the new President are likely to prove more complex and challenging than the question of defending South Korea.The most obvious questions relate to Japan, to China and Taiwan, and to India and Pakistan.
* In Japan, the big question is defense spending. Japan has often been accused of getting a "free ride" in defense, thanks to the protection of the United States. Up to now its defense budgets have been limited to a maximum of 1 percent of the nation's gross national product. Considering japan's rapid economic growth, that has allowed for considerable expansion.
But the US is moving well beyond 5 percent in its defense spending. At the same time, Soviet naval forces in East Asia have grown significantly while some American ships have been diverted from the Pacific to Indian Ocean duty.
Reagan administration officials would clearly like to see Japan spend more on defense. But because of Japan's World War II heritage, this is a sensitive issue. It will require much diplomacy, and perhaps some gentle nudging, to get the Japanese to go along.
* On Taiwan, the big question is American weapons. The Chinese Nationalists had pressed the Carter Administration to sell them advanced fighter planes. President Carter rejected such requests, fearing a strong reaction from Peking.
But President Reagan has spoken in the past of strengthening ties with Taiwan. In an interview with the New York Times on Jan. 23, Taiwanese Prime Minister Sun Yun-hsuan said Taiwan hopes the new administration will quickly supply it with long-requested "defensive arms."
American laws permit the US to provide Taiwan with such arms. But how "defensive" are the F-16 fighters and the Harpoon ship-to-ship missiles Taiwan apparently is asking for? Would Taiwan settle for the FX, a fighter built for export, which is less sophisticated than the F-16?
* On the Indian subcontinent, the questions are military assistance to the Afghan freedom fighters, and aid and commitments to Pakistan. The Reagan administration is likely to incline toward giving aid to the Afghan insurgents; but this must pass through Pakistan, leaving the pakistanis even more vulnerable to potential Soviet pressure than they are now.
Some US military men are advising Secretary of State Alexander Haig that the US must put together a major military aid package for Pakistan and accompany it with reaffirmations of US defense commitments to that nation. But that would mean repealing legislation which bars such aid because of Pakistan's nuclear program. It also might trigger a reaction from India, Pakistan's old antagonist.
All of these questions are full of mine fields for Reagan administration policymakers. They make President Reagan's reaffirmation of commitments to South Korea look as easy as a walk across the White House lawn.