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Japan Fret: Big Threat, Tiny Army

December 27, 1987|Eric Margolis | Eric Margolis, recently returned from Japan, is a foreign-affairs specialist for the Toronto Sun.

TORONTO — While their nation grows ever richer from trade, Japanese defense planners increasingly worry about the startling vulnerability of their island nation. "I fear that Japan may go the way of ancient Carthage," said one strategist. Japanese take their history seriously; Carthage, the great trading power of the classical world, had few of its own soldiers and relied, instead, on mercenaries. In the end, neither wealth nor brilliant generals saved Carthage from destruction by the superior military power of Rome.

Today the Third Rome, as Soviets like to style themselves, presents Japan with its most serious strategic challenge. As Japanese stategists see it, Soviet forces in the Far East have increased their combat power by 50% over the past decade. Establishment of a major, permanent Soviet base at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, threatens Japan's oil routes through the Strait of Malacca and in the South China Sea. Increasing Soviet overflights and naval penetration of Japan's airspace and waters are of growing concern. Only weeks ago a Japanese fighter intercepted and fired warning bursts in front of an intruding Soviet bomber--the first shots fired at the Soviets by a Japanese aircraft in more than three decades.

The warm winds of detente do not reach the Far East. A volatile mixture of historical and geographical tensions have kept relations between Moscow and Tokyo as cold as the gray waters of the Sea of Okhotsk.

The Japanese islands, extending from Sakhalin to Korea, neatly cut off the Soviet Far Eastern coast. In wartime, ships from every Soviet Pacific port except remote Petropavlosk would have to fight their way through Japan's narrow Tsugaru, Soya or Tsushima Straits.

The Soviets and the Japanese have been bad neighbors for a century. At the end of the 1800s, both powers were expanding into the wilderness of Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. A clash was inevitable and it became the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. The upstart Japanese trounced the Russians and sank their fleet at Tsushima Strait, a disaster that still rankles the Soviets. Since then, the two nations have argued over Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands, vied for influence in Korea and fought, on and off, from 1936 to 1945.

As a result of the brief Soviet attack in 1945, Japan was forced to cede the Kuriles and lower Sakhalin. The Soviets also seized four islands off Hokkaido that Japan claimed were never part of the Kuriles. Japan refuses to sign a final peace treaty with Moscow ending World War II until it gets back the "Northern Territories." The Soviets have responded by fortifying these barren hunks of rock, moving in more troops and MIG-23s. Some Japanese even suspect that Washington encouraged the Soviets to seize the islands, knowing that the dispute would force Tokyo into permanent alliance with the United States.

For crowded, land-hungry Japan, loss of any territory is serious and guaranteed to sustain strong anti-Soviet feeling. Equally galling is Moscow's persistent refusal to treat Japan as an equal. While Japan's gross national product reaches superpower size, the Soviets dismiss Japan as no more than a rich American satrap and "henchman of Pentagon militarists." Soviet policy toward Japan can be summed up by paraphrasing Stalin's old barb about the Pope: How many divisions has the Mikado? Japan may be an economic giant, but militarily it remains a midget.

For a nation of 123 million people generating 10% of the world's economic activity, Japan's Self-Defense Forces are tiny: an army of 155,000 troops in 13 small divisions; 67 warships, and fewer than 400 combat aircraft. Professionalism and motivation do not make up for lack of aircraft, ships, guns, missiles and the high-tech accessories of modern warfare. Japan's stock of munitions are a paltry 104,000 tons; the country would be unable to fight a major war for more than a few days.

Imported oil supplies almost all of Japan's energy needs. Virtually all raw materials that fuel Japanese industry come in by ship; the maritime blockade of Japan by U.S. submarines and mines brought the island empire to its knees in World War II. Nagasaki and Hiroshima only made Japan face the reality that it had already been defeated by late 1944.

And the Soviet Union is not Japan's only worry. Quietly, Japanese security officials are also uneasy about China. Japan now provides about 80% of China's economic aid but as recently as a decade ago, debate still raged within the Japanese government over the wisdom of helping the sleeping giant build its economy and armed forces. Japanese understand the need to offset growing Soviet military power in the Far East by helping China modernize, yet there remains a deep sense of distrust and residual wartime animosity between the two nations.

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