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As US Defends Japan, Who's Being Served?

A good deal for Tokyo: It can concentrate on economic growth while Uncle Sam hangs around

AT the height of the cold war in 1976, the Japanese government articulated its principal military goal: "Japan should prevent (foreign invasion) on its own." Two decades later that objective is achievable. The Soviet Union has collapsed. The cold war is over. Tokyo has the second-largest economy on earth. Japan's potent military is more than sufficient to deter aggression by any of its neighbors.

But its new defense plan reads: "Japan should prevent (foreign invasion) under appropriate cooperation with the United States." The newspaper Sankei Shimbun says the change indicates "Japan's intention to depend more heavily than before on the United States' deterrent force."

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Indeed, even as Tokyo officials were attempting to defuse popular protests against American deployments on the island of Okinawa after the rape of a young Japanese girl by US servicemen, they were announcing significant reductions in their own armed forces. The government plans to cut the Army from 180,000 to 145,000; drop an Air Force F-4 squadron; and eliminate some destroyers, anti-submarine aircraft, and other naval units. Though Tokyo's inflated exchange rate makes Japanese defense spending appear to be second only to that of the US, the country's per capita outlays run 17th, after Italy.

What a deal. Tokyo can save money as threats against it recede, while Uncle Sam hangs around in case other bullies show up. That lets Japan concentrate on economic growth, technological innovation, and job creation. No wonder it has been so successful economically.

Even Japanese officials acknowledge that it looks like Japan is taking advantage of America. Says one top Foreign Ministry official: There "is a ring of truth" to the belief that the defense relationship "gives Japan breathing space, where it can rest and not make an effort to increase its international role." Indeed. The US spends about 4 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, four times Japan's level. Tokyo argues that it has little to fear. Russia's attention has been diverted, China's military forces lag well behind its potential, and North Korea must focus on its southern adversary. But then, the US faces even fewer threats. Why should Washington rather than Tokyo protect Japan?

In America's interest?

Naturally, Japanese officials argue that the US defense subsidy is in America's interest. But how? Keeping 47,000 soldiers on the island nation is unlikely to prevent a Communist resurgence in Russia or China. Tokyo indicated that it was reluctant to allow the US to use its bases in the event of a confrontation with Beijing over Taiwan. US forces could reinforce South Korea in the event of war with North Korea, but Seoul is now capable of defending itself, with twice the population and about 18 times the gross national product of its northern neighbor.

As a last resort Japanese officials ask: Do you want the Imperial Navy roaming the Pacific? Presumably, no. But the Tokyo of today is very different from the Tokyo of 1941, and it is Japan's capitalist and democratic status, not American troops in Okinawa, that keeps Tokyo from embarking on another war of conquest. In fact, there is no better way to disrupt the two nations' friendship than to let Japanese citizens know that America's military presence is more to watch than to defend them.

US won't go

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Yet the US continues to insist on staying. Last year the Pentagon issued a report promising to maintain a "stable forward presence in the region, at the existing level of about 100,000 troops, for the foreseeable future." It indicated that the US will garrison Japan irrespective of any changes in the world. Enemies may disappear and friends may become self-sufficient, but no matter. Washington must remain.

True, other nations in the region such as Singapore and South Korea want US forces to stay. But it should come as no surprise that they are willing to fight to the last American. They should cooperate with Japan to promote regional security rather than expect the US to baby-sit forever.

The counterproductive impact of Tokyo's dependence on Washington was evident in 1994, when the US was considering imposing economic sanctions on North Korea in retaliation for its nuclear program. It asked Japan to provide antisubmarine aircraft and minesweepers in the event of war. Japan, in far more danger than America if the North went nuclear, said no. Tokyo's message, repeated during the recent imbroglio over Taiwan: Kindly defend us, but don't expect us to help.

Turning East Asia into a de facto protectorate might have made sense immediately after World War II, but no more. Our well-heeled allies have become international welfare queens. With our enemies disappearing and our allies growing stronger, the US should return to the latter responsibility for their own defense.

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