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Japan inches toward sharing its defense technology with US

Slowly, Japan is moving to make good on its promise to share advanced weapons-related technology with the United States. Almost 11 months after the two countries signed an agreement on such transfers, virtually nothing has been done. However, earlier this week the Japanese Defense Agency said it had begun consultations with the Foreign and International Trade and Industry ministries on the planned establishment of a Japan-US joint military technology committee to screen American requests.

This announcement came days before the agency's director general, Yuko Kurihara, left for Washington. He is scheduled to meet his US counterpart, Caspar Weinberger, on Sept. 24, when technology transfer is sure to come up.

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An advisory committee to Secretary Weinberger warned in a recent report that Japan's defense-related industries were certain to keep growing rapidly to become formidable rivals to their American counterparts in the near future. ''Japan's defense-technology cooperation with the US should be considered a vital means of enabling the US to keep its edge in defense technologies over Japan,'' it declared.

But this is precisely why Japanese firms are dragging their feet, making it difficult for the government to follow through on its promises to Washington.

The government is hampered because, unlike the US and other Western powers, the strength of the defense industry here derives primarily through technology advances in civilian industries.

Kinya Masudo, a defense expert at Keidanren (the Federation of Economic Organizations), says: ''This is something unique about the Japanese defense industry. Instead of civilian industry receiving a spinoff from the military, it is the other way around here.''

Government moves to share know-how with the US have prompted fears in industrial circles that American companies might use the technology to compete in commercial products. As a result, the Japanese companies involved are certain to play their hands very carefully, considering whether to hand over specific technology on a case-by-case basis after careful scrutiny of all the commercial aspects.

Two things favor the US cause, however. One is a moral consideration. The postwar Japanese defense industry has benefited immensely from the expertise gained in assembling American-developed weapons under license. With US technology as a backdrop, the Japanese have successfully developed their own ground-to-air short-range missiles, supersonic jet trainers, and battle tanks ranked among the best in the world.

The second big factor is money. Technically, the Japanese believe they can match the best in the world. But with the self-imposed ban on weapons exports, they cannot hope to pare down the increasingly formidable development costs. In that sense, the future of Japan's defense industry (with current annual sales of

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When he visited Washington in January 1983, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said his government had concluded that the supply of weapons-related technology to the US did not violate Japan's three principles concerning weapons exports: banning shipment to socialist countries, to countries covered by United Nations sanctions, and to nations involved or likely to be involved in international disputes. According to a trade ministry official, the ban has been enforced so rigidly that ''not a single bullet has been sold abroad'' since World War II.

Last November the two governments exchanged notes agreeing that the supply of military technology was based on a bilateral mutual defense treaty to enhance the defense capability of the US.

The advisory committee to Weinberger compiled a report on what Japanese know-how the US wants. Among the 16 high-tech fields listed in the report were gallium-arsenide semiconductors (for smaller, more powerful, and more intelligent computers), optical fiber communications devices, pattern and voice recognition and related electronic techniques, production techniques for new ceramics, heat resistant materials, and robots.

Another report, just issued by a US-Japan advisory committee, urges joint development of high-tech weapons to thwart the dangerous buildup of Soviet forces, particularly in northeast Asia.

The 15-member commission said: ''In an era when technology can make decisive contributions to the development of new weapons systems, Japan and the United States - as the world's two technological leaders - should vigorously pursue research and development collaboration.

''It makes sense to combine such Japanese strengths as state of the art electronics, telecommunications, and maintenance and production techniques with such American skills as systems engineering and (computer) software.''

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