IN 1945 virtually all of Asia lay in ruin, devastated by more than a decade of carnage. Twice since, Americans were sent to fight and die in defense of freedom in Asia in undeclared wars whose shock waves still reverberate. But in 1988 we are at peace in the Pacific. Our closest security partners are setting the pace within the region in terms of political, social, and economic dynamism. By any standard of measurement United States foreign policy in Asia should be judged successful. What we have achieved in Asia by 1988 would have been regarded as wildly improbable, viewed from the optics of 1945, or even 1975.
Despite this remarkable policy windfall, or perhaps because of it, America's key security partnerships with Japan and South Korea have come under intense scrutiny in recent months, reflecting congressional unease over a decline in American competitiveness. Instead of charting the steps needed to raise America's performance in the world economy, however, some have found it more expedient to cast aspersions on the growing economic power and persistent (if diminishing) trade surpluses of these two dynamic exporting nations.
The Congress has let it be known that a more equitable sharing of the roles, risks, and responsibilities of the defense of the free world must be established. The issue is commonly termed ``burden sharing.''
I prefer to call it ``burden sharing for democracy,'' because our exertions and those of our security partners cannot be assessed in isolation from their purpose or the resulting benefits to the citizens, here and abroad, who must foot the bill. As we look to our allies to bear a greater burden for the shared cause of security, we must not overlook the benefits US citizens derive from the status quo. Unlike our allies, we have no foreign warships anchored in our ports, no foreign fighter planes training above our rooftops, and no foreign tanks conducting maneuvers in our heartland. I do not doubt that every one of our defense partners would trade its overall security posture for ours, if given the chance.
No universally accepted formula exists for calculating each country's ``fair share.'' For example, it is relevant that Japan spends slightly more than 1 percent of GNP on de fense - a considerably smaller percentage than the US, Korea, or the NATO allies spend. Yet Japan's defense budget will soon become the third largest in the world, first after the two military superpowers.
No less relevant are the historical circumstances underlying Japan's constitutional limitations on its military forces, in which the US played a central role. A US-Japanese division of labor that is sensible as well as equitable must reflect both the American desire for forward-deployed forces in East Asia and the mutual desire for Japanese forces geared to a self-defense mission.
Although still firmly reliant on the US for protection against Soviet nuclear blackmail, Japan today is making an invaluable contribution to US Pacific security, by deploying an air defense and antisubmarine detection network 500 miles on either side of Vladivostok.
Similarly, on the Korean Peninsula, the benefits of the status quo are underappreciated by many in the US. Korea is perhaps the most dangerous flash point in all of Asia. A shifting of US defense responsibilities to South Korea would benefit the American taxpayer nothing if such a move emboldened the irrational regime in North Korea to step up tensions and provocations.
The recent congressional demand that Japan triple its defense spending, and talk of removing US forces from Korea, may play to xenophobic and isolationist public sentiments here at home; but they are seriously misguided. They fail to account for the underlying facts or consequences of such actions.
They do not take into consideration the still-lingering anxieties of noncommunist Asian nations concerning the present level of Japanese defense capability, much less the remilitarization of Japan which the congressionally proposed defense spending level would entail.
Perhaps most important, they spare American citizens the hard truth that burden sharing also means power sharing, and that the world would look a lot different if the US were effectively beholden to collective security arrangements in which the major strategic decisions were conceived in foreign capitals.
American leaders must not merely amplify uninformed views, but forge common ground between popular sentiments and enlightened calculations of the national interest.
Fortunately, some responsible American lawmakers appear cognizant of the dangers of a demagogic approach to burden sharing. Legislators should be the first among us to appreciate how poorly members of the Japanese Diet or the Korean National Assembly react to highly publicized - and grossly unfair - American characterizations of the Japanese and Korean peoples as, in effect, freeloaders. When members of our Congress smash a Toshiba radio with a sledgehammer on the Capitol steps or, in televised hearings, instruct diplomats to demand greater allied expenditures for defense, with the implied threat that otherwise the American effort will be sharply curtailed, those abroad see this as prejudice and blackmail - just as we Americans surely would, were the roles reversed.
We should continue to move forward on the allied burden-sharing initiative. If it is handled in an informed, logical, and tactful manner, many countries will respond positively, and deterrence and stability will be enhanced.
If US interests are truly to be served well into the future, however, we must look beyond whatever measures our allies dutifully take to appease us in the months ahead.
A more ``equitable'' sharing of burdens will not be worth having if, in the process, the spirit of a partnership between citizens abroad and the American people is lost.
Let us start by doing whatever we can to ensure that they will inherit what we depend on to sustain our way of life today: strong, free, and cooperative partners who value our leadership and our friendship as much as our military might.
Richard L. Armitage is assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.