Trade and Security Policies Clash in Asia

Ernest Conine is a Times editorial writer

Anybody who takes a close look at this country's relations with its friends and allies in East Asia has to be struck by a contradiction that, over time, may pose as great a threat to Asian security as anything that the Soviets are doing in the area.

Japan, South Korea and several other nations in East Asia depend either formally or informally on the United States for protection against the Soviet Union and its allies, North Korea and Vietnam. The problem is that the countries huddling under the American security blanket are in several cases the same ones whose export-oriented economic strategies have contributed so mightily to the enormous U.S. trade deficit.

Holding a protective umbrella over East Asia is in our own interest. But to Americans who are being told that they may have to pay higher taxes, in part to support our far-flung military forces, the defense of Asia can look like a thankless task. That perception is feeding already-strong protectionist sentiments in Congress.

The reaction is understandable. But a close look at what's happening in East Asia suggests the need for cool calculation of fundamental American interests.

The Soviet military buildup in East Asia, which has been under way for two decades, is real. Western analysts count 41 divisions in Siberia and the Soviet Far East, plus 2,390 combat-type aircraft and a Pacific fleet boasting two aircraft carriers, 85 submarines, 19 amphibious vessels and large numbers of surface warships.

On the nuclear side the Soviets have deployed 162 SS-20 missiles and 85 Backfire bombers within range of Japan, China and other Asian countries.

Western experts figure that more than half the Soviet Union's ground and air strength in the region is directed mainly against China, which is not a U.S. ally. The big naval buildup, however, is aimed primarily against Japan and U.S. forces in the area.

The Soviets are trying now to build political influence in East Asia and the South Pacific commensurate with their military muscle.

Moscow is making some inroads among the small island nations of the South Pacific, which are upset by the refusal of U.S. tuna-boat operators to pay for fishing rights in the area. For the most part, however, Pacific-area countries are impressively resistant to Soviet overtures.

One reason is that Soviet military power doesn't much intimidate nations in Southeast Asia and elsewhere that are geographically far removed from the Soviet Union. Japan and South Korea, although uncomfortably aware of the bear's powerful claws, remain confident that the United States has an overall military edge.

Another factor is the clubfootedness of past Soviet diplomacy.

Until lately the Soviet Union had long treated the Japanese with contempt. Even now, despite Mikhail S. Gorbachev's desire to enlist Japanese capital and technology in his drive to modernize the Soviet economy, Moscow is unwilling to discuss Japan's demand for the return of four northern islands that have been occupied by the Soviets since 1945.

The fact that the Soviets, incredibly, stood by former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos until the bitter end did not endear them to the Philippines' new government.

Southeast Asians resent Soviet support for Vietnamese aggression in Cambodia. But Moscow will not withdraw that support because it ensures Soviet access to the bases at Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay.

The biggest factor of all in East Asia's resistance to Soviet overtures, however, is the area's astonishing economic growth.

The prosperity of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore is based on access to the American market. The Soviet Union, by contrast, is an unattractive trading partner because of the technological backwardness of its civilian economy and the rigidity of its state-run trading system.

Unfortunately, the importance of the American market to Japan and other East Asian countries is a two-edged sword. It makes friendly relations vulnerable to damage if access to our market is seriously restricted.

The United States is running very large trade deficits with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. These deficits, which are throttling our economic growth, cannot be tolerated indefinitely. Unless they are somehow reduced, tough protectionist measures are inevitable.

We should understand, however, that beyond a certain point protectionist measures--or successful pressures on our East Asian friends and allies to voluntarily curb their exports and remove the barriers to imports of U.S. goods--will severely affect the economies involved. And that could have an unfortunate effect on security relationships.

Demonstrations already have occurred in South Korea in protest against U.S. protectionist threats. A flaring of anti-Americanism is the last thing that we need at a time when North Korea already is working hard to promote political instability in the southern half of the peninsula.

A too-abrupt shrinkage of access to the U.S. market could precipitate an economic crisis in Japan, with its heavy reliance on exports, as well as in the smaller countries.

Leaving aside the effect on our own interdependent economy, such a development could reduce Japan's growing willingness to shoulder more of the burden for its own defense and--of potential importance to political stability in the Philippines--expand its economic aid program.

Although a visitor finds Japanese officials reluctant to say so, an economic upheaval could even produce a government that would have less stomach for opposing Soviet ambitions in Asia and more inclination to challenge the U.S. position on global issues. Considering the potential political leverage that comes with Japan's emergence as an economic superpower, that would be unfortunate.

The U.S. government's first responsibility is to the American people. Meeting that responsibility requires a reduction of this country's huge trade deficit--even if that means some formal restraints on access to the U.S. market.

The challenge facing Congress, the Administration and American business is to reduce the trade deficit to tolerable proportions without, as the old saying goes, cutting off our own nose to spite our face.

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