Wrong Cop for Asian Beat

US keeps Japan, Korea, others militarily addicted

FIFTY years ago Tokyo lay in ruins. Surrender was drawing inexorably - and mercifully - closer. Japan's future looked dim.

Today Tokyo's skyline is full of modern skyscrapers; new cars fill its bustling streets. It is a global financial center. Reconstruction is complete.

Except in one important area: defense. Japan remains essentially as dependent on US military guarantees now as after its surrender in 1945. And Washington is insistent that Tokyo and its neighbors remain junior partners in any defense relationship. A Pentagon report earlier this year reaffirmed the administration's commitment to maintain a ''stable forward presence in the region, at the existing level of about 100,000 troops, for the foreseeable future.'' The study further promises to preserve a ''strong defense alliance'' with South Korea even after the end of the North Korean threat. In short, what was must always be, irrespective of a changing world.

The Japanese government believes that this is a good thing. Kenjiro Monji, director of the National Security Policy Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, argues that Japan's security is ''best promoted by the maintenance of the alliance with the United States, the core of which is the US-Japanese Treaty,'' with its commitment to defend Japan. He and other officials contend that America's de facto protectorate is necessary not only for regional security, but for global peace.

Unfortunately, Japan is not the only East Asian nation that prefers American subsidies to self-reliance. The Republic of Korea, far stronger than its northern adversary, still desires US treaty guarantees and military deployments. In fact, one official at Seoul's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security argues that American troops should remain even after reunification to deter possible Japanese adventurism.

Similar fears animate other nations, such as Singapore, the Philippines, and China. And Japanese officials argue this factor warrants America's continued intervention.

Yet it is time that Japan and its neighbors come to terms with their history, ugly as it is. Europeans have grown to respect France despite Napoleonic despotism across Europe; they accept Germany despite their more recent experience with Nazi aggression. A similar change is needed in East Asia.

Alas, this is not likely as long as Washington provides defense welfare to the region. Tokyo obviously has no reason to do more so long as America offers to defend - indeed, insists on defending - Japan. It is therefore no surprise that despite oft-expressed concerns about the potential of a revived Russia, an aggressive China, regional instability, and even an assertive united Korea, Japanese military spending is actually falling as a percentage of GDP.

Japanese policymakers are forthright about their expectation that America will continue solving the region's problems. For instance, should conflict break out between China and neighboring nations over the Spratley Islands, a matter of little direct interest to America, Tokyo presumes the US would intervene militarily. Japan would provide logistics support, says a defense official, if southeast Asian nations requested it. They almost certainly would not.

Dependence on the US has a similarly debilitating impact on Japan's neighbors. One leading legislator admits that America's defense guarantees have allowed other nations to refuse to consider a new regional defense system with Japan occupying a greater role. This despite the fact that, he complains, ''our neighbors know that we have no ability to invade and occupy them.'' But, alas, America's presence makes change unlikely.

The cold war has ended. The threat of hegemonic communism has disappeared; America's war-torn allies, led by Japan, have recovered from the devastation of World War II. There is no need for America to continue defending nations fully capable of defending themselves.

Instead of demanding that its allies remain junior partner in an expensive alliance that has lost its raison d'etre, Washington should announce that it is ending America's Far-Eastern protectorate and phasing out its troop presence.

Then it will be up to the fast-growing states of Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and others to organize and fund their own defense. Doing so would not be easy, but then, change rarely is. The nations of East Asia have become major international economic players. It is time that they accepted commensurate military responsibilities as well.

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