SECRETARY of Defense William Perry's trip to East Asia this week illustrates one of the embarrassing parts of being the global supercop. Occasionally you have to remind people to be grateful for what you do for them.
''Our forces, deployed throughout the Asia-Pacific [region], provide the oxygen for the engine of Pacific economic growth,'' Mr. Perry said in Tokyo yesterday. ''We could locate our troops - all of our troops - back in the US,'' he later added, ''but they would not serve the function ... of providing security and stability to the western Pacific. They are not here because it is convenient for us.''
Perry is visiting Japan partly to pave the way for President Clinton's trip later this month. Mr. Clinton plans to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit meeting in Osaka, Japan, on Nov. 19 and then travel to Tokyo for a state visit.
But Perry's most important task is to try to ease recent tensions over the presence of US troops here and in South Korea, where he is also traveling. Perry and Japanese officials yesterday announced the creation of a ''special action committee'' that could ''adjust the deployment of forces'' in Japan without reducing the total number of the US troops based here.
This news was greeted coolly in Okinawa, the southern Japanese island where US troops are disproportionately based and where protesters have been demanding reductions.
''In the past both governments have agreed on many things, but the results have been few,'' says Akiko Yui, an editorial adviser to the Okinawa Times. ''Okinawans can't be optimistic.''
Indeed, Perry declined to forecast whether any major bases or facilities in Okinawa would be closed or moved elsewhere as a result of the action committee. Instead he reminded an audience of mainly Japanese reporters that ''during times of no crisis and no perceived immediate threats it's easy to concentrate on the inconvenience of Marine bases and air bases. We hope that those forces never have to be called into combat, but if they are I will be very glad, and you will be very glad, that they are based where they are.''
The US military role in this part of the world is extensive: 100,000 troops live and train here, mainly on bases in Japan and South Korea and on ships in the Pacific.
Under the US-Japan mutual security treaty, signed in 1960, the US protects Japan and Japan provides the bases and facilities the US requires. In South Korea, US troops help defend the world's most heavily militarized stretch of real estate: the border between North and South Korea.
This summer South Korea asked the US to consider revising the pact that governs the presence of American personnel in that country, a document known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). A public outcry over the legal rights granted to US personnel under the deal prompted the request.
A similar controversy arose in Japan this fall after three US servicemen were accused of raping a 12-year-old Okinawan girl in early September.
Early protests over a SOFA provision that US personnel should remain in US custody until they are indicted by Japanese authorities quickly escalated. Late last month as many as 85,000 people, many of them Okinawans angry that their tiny island prefecture hosts three-quarters of US military facilities in Japan, held a rally calling for SOFA revisions and reduced deployments.
US and Japanese officials have said the US will consider transferring future rape and murder suspects more quickly, but have refused any formal revision of the SOFA. US officials are concerned that renegotiating the agreement would raise too many uncomfortable issues, such as the amount of air space and communications frequencies granted to US forces. Apparently mindful of the South Korean precedent, they also do not want to encourage other countries where US troops are based to demand SOFA revisions.
Although some signals from Washington have been mixed, US officials now seem adamant that the overall number of US personnel in Japan - about 47,000 - should remain the same.
This insistence is partly directed at critics in the US, who have attacked the US-Japan alliance as a relic of the cold war and noted that the US and Japan no longer have a common enemy, given the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But yesterday Perry's answer to this critique seemed particularly directed at the Japanese.
''Suppose,'' he speculated, ''we scrapped the alliance, ... security guarantees [of which] have provided the umbrella which has allowed Japan and the region to enjoy an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. Without these security guarantees Japan would have to choose another path to try to maintain the peace and prosperity... Without the security guarantee provided by the US, Japan would face a dynamic and unpredictable region alone.''
US officials are frustrated, however, that they have had to defend the SOFA, and by extension the entire US-Japan security alliance, by themselves. Ezra Vogel, a Harvard University professor in Cambridge, Mass., who has served as a Pentagon intelligence official, says a recent controversy over a Japanese defense official who reportedly made comments supportive of the alliance and critical of the Japanese prime minister's inaction on the issue have caused concern in Washington.
''That no Japanese public official then spoke out in favor of those comments was noticed very much by the American side and I think there was some disappointment,'' says Professor Vogel.
Yesterday Perry implicitly acknowledged the lack of Japanese support thus far by anticipating the opportunities that will be afforded by Clinton's visit.
''I am looking forward to the summit meeting between President Clinton and Prime Minister [Tomiichi] Murayama,'' he said. ''That would be a marvelous podium for stating clearly and compellingly to the Japanese public, indeed to the world, why the Japanese-American security alliance is so important.''