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Put the Yen to Work for Democracy : Asian Security Depends on Sound Economies--in Philippines, for Starters

October 08, 1987|ROBERT E. HUNTER | Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"Money isn't everything," the cynic says, "but it's way ahead of whatever is in second place." That saying is often true in determining the fate of governments, as Corazon Aquino is now learning in the Philippines. It can also be true in searching for a way to help her. Fortunately, a way exists, and it goes by the name "Japan."

President Aquino can succeed only if she shows uncommon leadership and can create a sustainable politics in a society that at times seems ungovernable. But she won't have even that chance without major sources of external funding.

Despite America's good intentions, the level of effort required is well beyond the limits of the U.S. Treasury, reeling from its own deep-seated problems in the domestic and world economies. It is certainly not beyond the limits of Japan, which has pledged only about three-quarters of a billion dollars.

This presents a striking opportunity. As America's economic woes deepen, Japan gains prominence as a whipping boy. However much U.S. economists lay most of these woes at the American doorstep, the abuse of Japan, Inc., continues. That abuse has long since passed beyond envy to take on a racist tinge. It now risks fraying the fabric of political relations so central to American security interests in the Pacific and East Asia.

Not that Japan is blameless. Even though most U.S. exporters are lax in trying to crack the Japanese market--Detroit still does not produce a right-hand-drive car--Japanese trade barriers and government-blessed cultural habits systematically limit access. Even though the Pentagon may have exaggerated the value of Toshiba machine tools to the Soviet submarine program, Toshiba knew perfectly well that it wasn't selling the Soviets rice pudding.

Most important in the eyes of many American critics, Japan spends precious little on providing for its own security or for that of the region. Until this past year, Japanese defense budgets were zealously kept below the magic level of 1% of gross national product (the United States spends about 6.1% of its GNP on defense). And it has drawn a rigid line between economic and foreign-policy concerns. Thus in 1983 its foreign minister was fired on his return from the Williamsburg economic summit meeting, where he had unwittingly endorsed a declaration on European nuclear weapons and arms control.

It is not an exercise in Japan-bashing to argue that Japanese defense spending and responsibilities must be greatly increased. It is logical that the United States should not continue footing most of the bill for common security in the Western Pacific at a time when Japan is putting a squeeze on the U.S. economy.

As with most things in foreign affairs, however, there is a price to be paid. For one thing, because many peoples in East Asia still have vivid memories of World War II, reassigning security responsibilities to the Japanese might not meet with widespread approval. For another, with military power comes influence, and the United States may not yet be prepared to cede pride of place to Japan in the Western Pacific. Americans are in the habit of thinking that providing for "security" is a mechanical task, accepted in common and to be shared out according to capabilities. Not so. If Japan becomes a major military and naval power in the Pacific, the United States cannot count on calling the shots. It would not be surprising if differences of viewpoint and interest became increasingly evident.

In some parts of the world, East and West meet in armed confrontation, or they contend for influence in places (like the Persian Gulf) where military power is highly relevant. This is far less true in the Pacific, at least for now. The challenge there is more mundane but just as pressing, and a major part of both the problem and the remedy can be subsumed by economics.

If the United States wants Japan to accept a greater role in protecting security interests held in common, it will profit far more by stressing a Japanese role in providing capital funds rather than capital ships. Of course, Japan would have to be encouraged to provide aid without the strings that create captive markets and alienate recipients. Stressing such a role for Japan would also challenge it to assume more responsibilities for making the Western system work without either becoming a major military power or sacrificing economic achievements of which it is proud.

Opportunities abound, from Egypt to Pakistan to Indonesia, where Japan shares Western interests and has the money to do something about them. But no country right now rivals the Philippines in need, in opportunity, in proximity to Japan and in immediate consequences if the Aquino experiment fails.

The Japanese yen is no more a solution to every problem than is the Yankee dollar. Yet that does not mean that either is irrelevant as at least a partial cure for what ails nations in trouble. On the theory of two birds and one stone, generous infusions of Japanese capital into the Philippines are just what the doctor ordered.

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