A wide gap has opened up between Tokyo and Washington on the contentious issue of Japan's defense spending. The Reagan administration, ever conscious of the Soviet threat, wants a Japanese Self-Defense Force that would be ready to fight a war tomorrow. This means an increase in Japan's defense budget far greater than the 7.5 percent ceiling Prime Minister Zenko Suzuku has imposed.
"The major difference between Japan's armed forces and those of neighboring South Korea is not one of budget or of equipment," said one US defense expert. "It is readiness. If war broke out tomorrow, the South Koreans could fight. The Japanese could not."
US and Japanese ideas on Japan's defense were aired in considerable detail at a working-level conference between Defense and Foreign Ministry officials of the two countries in Hawaii June 10 to 12. Japanese Defense Minister Joji Omura is to meet his counterpart, Caspar Weinberger, in Washington June 29 and 30.
Japan, an economic giant, has long been considered a military pygmy, spending less than 1 percent of its gross national product on defense and depending heavily on its security treaty with the US for its protection. American impatience with Japan's modest defense efforts goes back a long way but has become even more evident under the Reagan administration. But there is disagreement on just how to get Japan to improve its performance.
The Pentagon is said to favor taking a tough line. The Hawaii meeting exemplified thsi approach.
The State Department is said to believe that pressuring Japan too far would be futile, indeed, counterproductive.
When Japanese Foreign Minister Sunao Sonoda met Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. in Manila June 18, he is said to have told the latter bluntly that Japan could not meet the kind of demands made at the Hawaii meeting.
"I thought it best to make clear the limits as to what we can do," Mr. Sonoda told Japense reporters later." It's not a question of whether we think the American proposals are good or bad. Rather the question is our capacity to carry out these proposals."
In short, Mr. Sonoda said, Japan simply did not have the money. Mr. Haig himself is said to have concluded that there are limits to what the US should or can do in pressuring a friendly regime.
Japan's defense budget this year is around $11 billion -- modest compared to that of Britain, France, or West Germany, but still the eighth largest in the world. The 7.5 percent ceiling imposed on the budget increase for next year will be largely eaten up by inflation, US official say.
But from the Japanese viewpoint, the 7.5 percent defense ceiling represents the limit of what the country can do to meet its defense commitments. Japan, like its Western allies, is grappling with the twin problems of recession and inflation. The government's first priority is reducing its 30 percent general budget deficit. All expense except defense and economic air are being held to a tight 1.9 percent increase.
Despite an increasing general awareness of Japan's vulnerability, most of the country's 117 million people have nowhere near the sense of urgency about defense that seems to pervade the American public in general and the Reagan administration in particular.
Still, there has been a growing sense that Japan does belong to the Western lineup of nations, that it shares a responsibility for preserving the viability of the Western economic system and the democratic way of life.
It is to this growing sense of shared responsibility that Washington will have to appeal if it is to get a meaningful response from the Japanese. In so doing, it will have to balance the militarily desirable against the politically possible -- an exceeding delicate exercise.