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Japan's Firms Unlikely to Rush for SDI Projects

July 22, 1987|SAM JAMESON | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — As the United States and Japan signed an agreement Tuesday in Washington setting the rules for Japan to join President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative research program, Japanese officials and observers said the signing is not expected to create a rush of Japanese corporations lining up at the Pentagon for orders.

But as a psychological step, it represents a vast departure from Japanese policy and attitudes that prevailed here as recently as five years ago when Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone took office.

The agreement, signed at the Pentagon by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and Japanese Ambassador Nobuo Matsunaga, establishes procedures by which Japanese companies and research centers can "compete for contracts on an equitable basis," a senior U.S. defense official told reporters.

No Specific Share

The official, who appeared at a Pentagon news briefing on condition that he not be identified, stressed that the Memorandum of Understanding does not guarantee the Japanese any specific share of work in the space-based missile program, also known as "Star Wars."

Under the agreement, Japanese industry will be eligible to bid directly on Pentagon contracts, to form joint ventures with American companies or to be hired as subcontractors by U.S. firms, the official added. The official added that the Japanese government had not made any commitment to participate directly or to fund "Star Wars" research.

But Weinberger said in an interview earlier in the day that he thought the Japanese "have some very valuable contributions to make and we want to work together."

However, one Japanese official, who asked not to be identified by name, said he knows of only "five or six" Japanese firms interested in participating in SDI research projects. Although he emphasized that he had not polled any spectrum of Japanese industry, the official has been involved in SDI consultations for more than two years.

Participation, a Foreign Ministry official said, most likely will take the form of Japanese companies serving as subcontractors to U.S. firms with SDI contracts. Government research institutes, although free to join, are not likely to get involved, he predicted.

Participation in the "Star Wars" project, however, brings the level of potential Japanese cooperation with the United States on defense issues to a plateau that few Japanese or Americans could have imagined before Nakasone took office. It represents the fruition of efforts made by Nakasone, who proclaimed when he became prime minister in November, 1982, that he intended both to make the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty function more smoothly and commit Japan more firmly to a role in the Western alliance.

After Japan's defeat in World War II, a policy banning exports of both military technology and weaponry gradually evolved until, by 1982, it had become a pillar of the country's diplomatic policy.

Surprising Stance

On his first visit to Washington, in January, 1983, however, Nakasone astonished both his countrymen and Pentagon officials by chipping off a corner of that pillar. He agreed to allow the Pentagon to procure Japanese military technology, ending the one-way flow of knowledge about weapons from the United States to Japan that had prevailed throughout the post-World War II period.

Now, the "Star Wars" research shakes two other pillars of Japanese postwar defense policy: its ban on nuclear weapons and its ban on military development in space.

In Parliament, Nakasone and other officials have evaded questions about aspects of the SDI program that are expected to involve nuclear explosions and brushed aside criticism about the apparent contradiction of the ban on military development in space.

"Our position is that the SDI is an undertaking by the U.S. government . . . which is different than Japan undertaking (such a program)," the Foreign Ministry official reiterated Tuesday.

The logic was shaky, but the result, as the government announced, was firm. Participation will enhance mutual cooperation between the two nations, Chief Cabinet Secretary Masaharu Gotoda said last September, when Japan embarked upon formal negotiations with the United States to set up the framework for SDI participation.

The agreement, Japanese leaders hope, would also repair, if only in small part, Japan's image as an ally of the United States that was badly tarnished by the sale of sophisticated milling machines to the Soviet Union by Toshiba Machine Co., a subsidiary of Toshiba, the giant electronics firm. The machinery, along with software provided by a Norwegian firm, was believed to have helped the Soviet navy develop submarines with quieter propellers that are harder to detect.

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