There is no substitute for American military power in Asia. That is the nearly unanimous opinion in political, business, and academic circles in Japan, strongly expressed at a recent top-level Japanese-American conference.
A Gaullist Japan? A Japan acquiring superpower military status, including nuclear weapons, to complement the economic superpower status it already possesses?
Periodically such visions seem to dance in the heads of some Western defense thinkers, including politicians. They get short shrift from most Japanese.
During his May visit to Washington, Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki said Japan preferred to be a porcupine rather than a lion. A more apt simile, equally favored by his countrymen, is of the bamboo which bends but never breaks amid storms.
It was a US scholar, Robert Pranger of the American Enterprise Institute, who caught the attention of the Japanese news media at this conference by his advocacy of superpower military status for Japan. (The conference was actually held in Oiso, Sept. 2 to 4, but is known as the Shimoda conference, since that city has been the site for it in years past.)
Japan, according to Dr. Pranger, is "the only single nation with the potential capacity to build a genuine, third superpower." By "third" Dr. Pranger means one capable of competing with the United States and the Soviet Union.
The relative decline of American military power and the steady increase of Soviet military capabilities, Dr. Pranger argued (in a cogent paper presented to the Shimoda conference) confronts Japan with two stark choices: either a kind of neutrality like that of Finland visa-vis the Soviet Union; or "military autonomy in alliance with the United States and possibly China."
He argued that the stability of Asia can best be promoted by "the emergence of Japan as a full-fledged military power, if not on the scale of the United States and the Soviet Union, at least on the level of France and perhaps beyond the French."
Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Dr. Pranger told reporters during the conference that the logic of events was pushing Japan toward these choices -- a contention the Japanese participants at the conference strenuously denied.
Defense policy is no longer a taboo subject in Japan, but is a matter of furious debate. If a consensus is emerging, it is in neither of the directions Dr. Pranger suggests -- not "Finlandization" and most certainly not nuclear weapons, or any of the other trappings of superpower military status.
In short, Japan's capacity to influence events in its own surrounding seas will remain strictly limited, to say nothing of commitments further afield such as the safeguarding of the oil route from the Middle EasT.
Dr. Pranger caused a flurry in the Japanese press precisely because some thought his views reflected those of influential Republican politicians and perhaps of President Reagan himself.
That concern seems to have been assuaged by certain other Americans at the conference who could not speak for the record because of their official positions but who were obviously contemplating nothing more than a Japan with a somewhat improved conventional defense capability.
Yet the unease generated by the Pranger thesis remains. Does the defense debate in Japan have to go all the way to this extreme -- to envision a Japan armed to the nuclear teeth in order to defend its own vital interests?
Dr. Pranger suggests a militarily autonomous Japan can remain in partnership with the United States. But almost all Japanese defense thinkers consider a remilitarized nation as an unwanted alternative to the security treaty with the United States. Under this Japan has mightity prospered while spending only a fraction of the national wealth on defense.
Which comes right back to the opening proposition of this article: that there is no substitute for American military power in Asia.
In his closing speech to the Shimoda conference, Prime Minister Suzuki himself gave what might be considered the most authoritative Japanese response to Dr. Pranger.
While upholding the principle of Japanese-American partnership in Asia, Mr. Suzuki said bluntly that Japan's efforts to promote peace and stability in East Asia would be restricted to "peaceful means."
"The greatest contribution our country can make," he said, was in the field of economic and social development aid. Japan was also prepared to play a "political role to promote peace and stability in this region."
As for the United States, Mr. Suzuki said its primary contribution lay in its "deterrent military presence." Second and third came a political role and economic aid.
Thus Mr. Suzuki made plain his contention that when it came to a military role to maintain peace and stability in Asia, no other country could substitute for the U.S.
The most that Japanese leaders are ready to concede is that Japan's own defense efforts must be gradually improved. This means, at the present rate, increases in defense expenditures of not much more than $1 billion a year.
Many political analysts here think that to budge the Japan from this position , the United States would have to generate among Japanese a sense of such alarm over American weakness and Soviet strength as to defeat its own purpose. This is the Reagan administration's dilemma.