As the last of the Japanese cherry blossoms settle on the grass of springtime Washington, a new friendship blooms --between the leaders of the United States and Japan.
President Reagan has played "Mr. Nice Guy" in his first meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.
Despite a number of unsettled differences between the US and Japan, both nations have decided to make this first Reagan-Suzuki summit an occasion for the two men to exchange views, establish rapport, and come to common understandings. The two apparently consider it important that the publics of both nations come away with a favorable impression of their two days of talks, May 7 and 8. The wrangling, including an American desire for greater Japanese defense efforts, is being left to lower-level experts.
Some time before the leaders of the free world's two leading industrial powers exchanged smiles and endorsed a prewritten joint communique, American experts had arrived at agreement on what they think should be top priorities for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.
One key question was whether the Japanese Navy would be able to extend its reach to help fill the gap left by American ships diverted from the Pacific to Indian Ocean duty. Although Prime Minister Suzuki himself seems to have already rejected such an idea, there may be some flexibility in the way in which the Japanese define the "peripheral waters" which they are pledged to defend.
"We've been deliberately vague about that," said a Japanese official.
American officials have decided not to focus in their discussions with the Japanese on breaking the long-standing Japanese defense spending limit of 1 percent of its gross national product. That has become something of a sacred cow in Japan. Instead, they plan to focus on securing agreement on purposes which the Japanese Self-Defense Forces ought to achieve. Any increase in defense spending would then flow logically from real, agreed upon needs.
One American specialist said that in addition to the question of naval reach, the Americans hoped to see progress on (1) building up Japanese stocks of ammunition, which are said to be low; (2) increasing the ability of the Japanese to conduct their own air defense, and (3) building a Japanese capability to mine the straits leading from the Soviet Union to the Sea of Japan.
Both sides agree that there has been a steady Soviet military buildup in East Asia in recent years and that the fall of Vietnam and the invasion of Afghanistan have created new legitimate concerns in the region. But it will take more than a Reagan-Suzuki meeting to obtain agreement on the tough military issues such as those listed above. Because of their World War II experience, the Japanese are still sensitive to any accusation, particularly from nations they once occupied, that they are plunging into a new round of militarism.
But support for the US-Japan defense treaty has grown among the Japanese in recent years. Defense coordination between the US and Japan has never been closer than it is now.
Prime Minister Suzuki sounded a bit stormy and "un-Japanese" just prior to his visit to Washington. In answer to a question from an American journalist, he said he was "somewhat perplexed" as to the timing of President Reagan's decision to lift the partial US grain embargo against the Soviet Union. The Japanese, who had followed the US example in imposing embargoes of their own, got little advance notice of this and were left in the lurch. In another interview, Suzuki said significantly higher defense spending would cause the defeat of his government.
American officials took all this calmly. Some saw in all this a Suzuki both pleasing his home audience and enhancing his bargaining position for the encounter with Reagan. But there was little bargaining to be done at this first meeting, and President Reagan seemed at ease as he welcomed his guest and described Japan as a "hamonious and loyal ally."