US debate on early deployment of SDI puts Tokyo in a bind

The American debate about speeding up the deployment of ``star wars'' has sparked worry in Japan. Japanese government officials were ``surprised and embarrassed,'' a defense official says, by the failure of the United States to consult its allies before making such a controversial consideration public.

Japan decided last September to participate in research on the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, or ``star wars''), but negotiations on a framework agreement to govern that role are still continuing.

Early deployment of SDI, officials here say, could have political repercussions in Japan, offering ammunition to those who oppose a Japanese hand in SDI. They also worry that such a move would provoke deterioration in US-Soviet relations.

``A lot depends on how the decision is made,'' one informed source says. If the US clearly tried to negotiate with the Soviets and consulted with its allies before the decision, ``then the Japanese government can explain it to the Diet [parliament].'' But, he adds, ``if the US government is ignorant enough to make a unilateral decision without negotiating with the Soviet Union, however superficial and hypocritical that may be, and without prior consultation with allies, it will cause serious problems for Japan.''

Last week, Tokyo told its ambassador to Washington ``to find out what is going on within the US government,'' as a Foreign Ministry spokesman put it. US Undersecretary of State Michael Armacost told Ambassador Nubuo Matsunaga that no decision had yet been reached.

The Japanese subtlely communicated their unhappiness with reports of imminent White House approval of SDI deployment and a reinterpretation of the 1972 US-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to allow steps in that direction.

``We reminded the US official that when we decided to participate in joint research work on SDI last September, we put forward five principles on which we made our decision,'' the Foreign Ministry spokesman says. ``One of the five points was that SDI should be carried out in conformity with the ABM Treaty.'' Another point was negotiating with Moscow and consulting with the allies.

The Japanese have stopped short of directly commenting on conflicting interpretations of the ABM Treaty. The so-called narrow interpretation blocks SDI testing outside the laboratory. The broad reading allows such activity. Early-deployment advocates favor the latter view.

``We are an uneasy ally to the US,'' a Foreign Ministry official says. ``We asked the US to comply with the ABM Treaty. So if the US takes any action that apparently violates the letter of the treaty, then that will be in conflict with our understanding of our participation. But if the US comes to the conclusion that the legal interpretation is such that it will permit their testing and deployment, we have no basis, legally, to challenge that,'' he says.

For almost all Japanese, including members of parliament, this is an arcane issue. But among policymakers, the informed source says, the majority are clearly critical of the broad reading of the treaty. ``They are concerned about the Soviet reaction,'' the source says. They believe arms control prospects would suffer, and ``they don't underestimate the Soviet capability to cope with SDI.''

Opposition parties are expected to question the government's assurance that it is only joining a research program. In response, the Foreign Ministry official says, ``We will adamantly stick to our original line that we understand SDI to be a research program and that no decision has been taken on deployment.''

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