December. 1987/ TOKYO Business Today

The Toshiba-COCOM affair still causes waves, but was the unhappy Japanese company really quite as remiss as many seem to assume ? A lot depends on how one views the Japan-U.S. military relationship.

Let's begin with the standard view. This says that Japan, like West Europe, depends on the U.S. for defence protection. But while the U.S. spends more than six percent of its GNP on defence, Japan spends only one percent, much less even than the West Europeans. Worse, it then uses its defence savings to expand its exports and threaten the U.S. economically. The final insult is anti-COCOM exports to the Soviet Union which undermine the U.S. defence position.

If this is true, then the U.S. has every right to be angry with Japan. U.S. legislation should be smashing more Toshiba machines on Capitol Hill. There should be bans on Japanese products. There should be even stronger demands that Japan up its economic aid, that it foot the full bill for U.S. bases in Japan, and that it get involved in the Persian Gulf. Japan should be told firmly that it does not get defence favours from the U.S. for nothing.

But there is another point of view in all this, and it says it is Japan not the U.S. that is giving most of the favours. After all, U.S. 'defence protection' for Japan is a fairly meaningless concept. There is little chance that a communist nation would want to attack Japan directly. If one did, the U.S. would only want to defend Japan if it was in the U.S. interest to do so, alliance or no alliance.

Certainly, much of this is also true for West Europe, which does cooperate closely with the U.S. in COCOM and many other ways. But there is one major difference between Japan and West Europe, namely that in the event of some U.S-U.S.S.R. confrontation it is unlikely that Japan would be automatically embroiled. Indeed, Japan would only be embroiled if right from the start it gave the impression of being a close ally of the U.S.

In this situation, Japan's willingness to offer close defence cooperation with the U.S. is an act of extreme generosity. To allow the U.S. to continue to enjoy the luxury of its Big Power confrontation with the Soviets in this part of the world, Japan provides bases, tolerates noisy U.S. military aircraft, passes up the chance of better relations with the U.S.S.R., makes unpopular increases in defence spending, and weakens its ability to take an independent stance in world affairs. On top of all this it cooperates in COCOM. A lot of quid for very little quo, it would seem.

Which view is right? I leave that for the reader to decide, but I do remember a time a decade or so ago when the U.S. was much more appreciative of the much less defence aid it was getting from Japan. In those days the threat was supposed to be from China, not the U.S.S.R. But only the most extreme of the hawks in Washington imagined Japan would want to go along with the alarmist view of China then being manufactured with great vigor in the U.S.

On the contrary, many in the U.S. feared that in any rational assessment of where its interests by Tokyo would inevitably decide that it should seek closer relations with Peking. If this happened, the whole framework of U.S. military strategy in East and Northeast Asia would be shattered. To keep Japan on side in the defence area it was taken for granted that the U.S. would have to offer large concessions in other areas. One such concession was the carte blanche Japan enjoyed into the U.S. market for so long. In those days Washington was most polite in its occasional criticisms of Japanese policies, very polite indeed. Certainly no one thought of smashing Japanese products on Capitol Hill.

Today we are told that it is Moscow, not Peking, that is the threat. It is an interesting volte face, one that gives us a more realistic threat than what we had before. But isn't there a limit to the number of times you are allowed to cry wolf? And is the Soviet threat really as credible as many seem to believe?

I worked as an Australian diplomat in the Soviet Union, at the end of the Khruschev era. It was obvious even then that the trend was to liberalisation. The Soviet hawks managed to stage a comeback in 1964, thanks largely to the U2 and Cuban escapades of U.S. hawks. But it was only a matter of time before a Gorbachev emerged to continue the liberalisation process. Now, when it is clear that things are changing for the better in the Soviet Union, Japan has to be bludgeoned with that Cold War hangover called COCOM.

Let me suggest a compromise solution: Henceforth the Toshiba Machine Company will devote as much effort to reducing the noise of U.S. military aircraft in Japan as it once devoted to reducing the noise of Soviet submarines. That way everyone will be happy.


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