United States-Japanese defense relations, once a subject of American concern and even tension, have been transformed from a problem area to a success story. That was the clear message carried here by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, according to US defense officials. Previous complaints from the US about inadequate Japanese defense spending have virtually disappeared, replaced by praise for Japan's steady buildup and the two countries' growing military ties.
In a speech before the Japan National Press Club Mr. Weinberger downplayed the significance of trade frictions compared to the strategic value of the US-Japan alliance. He called that security link ``a strategic factor of major importance, particularly because of Japan's economic and technological prowess and its geographic position flanking Soviet Far Eastern air and naval bases.
The defense secretary pointedly tied this theme to the US request for Japanese participation in the Reagan administration's space-based strategic defense initiative (SDI, or ``star wars'').
``In the era of high-technology defense,'' he said, ``there are few opportunities for deterring Soviet power more promising than combining Japanese and US technological capabilities.''
The defense secretary depicted SDI cooperation as only one example of the potential for mutual exchange of military technology between Japan and the US. Since the Japanese government's decision in 1983 to exempt the US from its ban on the export of defense technologies, the two governments have moved to conclude an agreement to transfer the first item, a missile system.
A Japanese SDI study team, including for the first time representatives of private companies, is currently in the midst of a 10-day visit to the US. A Japanese decision on taking part in SDI, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone told Weinberger in a meeting here, will await the report from that fact-finding mission. US officials say there is no impatience with Japan, claiming that SDI participation is ``not a goal of the [Weinberger] visit.''
Weinberger's upbeat tone on relations with Japan has been paired here with warnings about the Soviet military buildup in Asia.
He defended US and Japanese defense buildup efforts as necessary to ``keep the Soviets at bay.'' The Soviet military buildup in the Far East, he asserted, is greater ``than anywhere else in the world.''