One of the more contentious issues in Japan-American relations has now been resolved to U.S. satisfaction with Tokyo's decision to buy American after all when it comes to its next generation of air-defense jet fighter planes. That pleases the Pentagon and the American aircraft industry on two counts: It assures continuing and substantial Japanese purchases from U.S. plane manufacturers and their suppliers. And it postpones, probably until early into the next century at least, the time when Japan's own aircraft industry might emerge as a major competitor in international markets.
Some congressional critics of Japan's trade policies have praised Tokyo's decision as proof of a serious interest in improving bilateral trade relations, deeply irritated in recent years by continuing and rising Japanese trade surpluses. Japan's Defense Agency plans to buy at least 100 new planes, designed both to intercept hostile aircraft and for close-in use against enemy ships. The cost is expected to be at least $6 billion. Much of that is expected to go either to McDonnell Douglas Corp., which makes the twin-engine F-15, or to General Dynamics Corp., manufacturer of the lighter and shorter-range F-16.
Japan already builds a model of the F-15 under license, and whichever modification of an American plane it chooses next will also be made largely in Japan. In agreeing essentially to stick with its American suppliers, the Defense Agency both abandoned its own longstanding inclination and disappointed Japan's domestic aircraft industry, which had argued that it was now mature enough to produce a front-rank fighter plane from scratch. Had Japan chosen to go its own way, the political reaction in Congress and elsewhere would certainly have been harsh. The important fighter-plane decision won't end bilateral trade frictions. But removing one important point of conflict may make it easier to address other issues more calmly.