Shoring up US-Japan ties

The Japanese government is trying to repair the growing breach in its vital security ties with the United States. Those relations were strained by the recent scandal surrounding the illegal sale of high technology to the Soviet Union by a Japanese machine tool company. Americans, particularly in the Congress, are questioning Japan's commitment to the Western military alliance.

Japanese officials, worried that defense could join trade as a source of increasing tension, are pushing through a variety of measures to ease those concerns:

The government is considering ways to contribute to the American and European military effort in the Gulf.

The Defense Agency has announced a draft budget for next year which will expand Japan's joint role in sea lane defense.

Officials are seeking a compromise on selecting a new supersonic fighter between pressures to buy American or select a homemade design.

Last Friday, the parliament passed, unusually rapidly, legislation toughening controls on strategic exports.

Trade and Industry Minister Hajime Tamura is visiting Washington this week, carrying with him the new export law. The revised legislation will strengthen penalties for firms that illegally sell high technology to communist countries. Mr. Tamura is trying to soften the terms of an omnibus trade bill now in the final stages of passage in Congress. The Senate version of the bill contains an amendment banning the imports of Toshiba Corporation, the parent of the firm involved in the illegal sale to the Soviet Union.

The Toshiba case is not the only one to link the problems of Japan's huge trade surplus with the US to security issues. ``Added to that now,'' leading daily Asahi Shimbun editorialized this week, ``is the American feeling that Japan is getting a `free ride' from America in expecting US warships to protect Japanese tankers [in the Gulf].''

Japan will have to play a role more commensurate with its status as a world economic power, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone told a conference of his ruling party less than two weeks ago. ``As the biggest beneficiary of Middle East oil exports through the strait,'' Mr. Nakasone said, ``Japan should consider ways to contribute to the international community.''

The prime minister suggested that Japan is ready to share financially in the cost of securing safe passage if the UN sets up a means to this end. Japan's antiwar Constitution prohibits the dispatch of military forces abroad, although Nakasone told parliament that the dispatch of minesweepers ``would not constitute a use of military force.''

Closer to home, the Japanese military is planning to significantly improve its capability to defend the sea lanes out to 1,000 miles, a commitment made first in 1981. Sea lane defense is considered a key contribution to US efforts in the Pacific to counter the buildup of the Soviet Pacific fleet and air forces.

The Defense Agency's draft budget, submitted two weeks ago, includes new weapons that will greatly improve maritime air defense. The budget proposes purchase of a $1 billion Aegis-type warship, equipped with a US-made air defense system.

The $25.8 billion draft budget, a 6.2 percent increase over this year, will also fund new US-made antisubmarine warfare helicopters and the construction of an over-the-horizon radar. The radar, designed to detect aircraft at very long ranges, will operate as part of a chain of stations set up by the US from Alaska to the Philippines.

US officials here praised the plans, but are even more pleased by the apparent readiness of the Japanese government to compromise on the FSX project, the planned introduction of a new ``support fighter.''

The Japan Defense Agency, urged on by Japanese industry, has been determined to adopt a domestically designed and developed aircraft. US defense and congressional leaders have criticized that intent as costly and unlikely to meet Japan's defense needs. Instead they have urged purchase of an American aircraft or a ``co-developed'' variant of one.

The Toshiba scandal, along with the ever-boiling trade conflict, has convinced some Japanese officials, particularly in the Foreign, and Trade and Industry Ministries, that US-Japan relations could be severely harmed by a domestic choice. They have been searching for a formula that could satisfy both US demands and those of Japanese industry.

Last week a Japanese industry team returned talks with US aerospace makers aimed at yielding a recommendation on ``co-development.'' Japanese officials say the team will recommend taking the airframe of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 and fitting it with Japanese-developed avionics technology.

While some US officials and industry sources see this as a workable compromise, others worry that the Japanese desire to change the airframe could jeopardize a deal. In that case, they say, there may be little practical difference between a domestic and ``co-developed'' plane. All sides agree that an amicable resolution of the FSX issue could go a long way to easing the problems in the security alliance.

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