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Bentsen Says Japan Should Pick Up $3.5-Billion Tab for Its Defense

Times Staff Writer

Amplifying his criticism of allies who fail to bear their share of defense spending, Lloyd Bentsen declared Thursday that the Administration of Michael S. Dukakis would seek to “equalize the burden” by the end of its first term.

The Democratic vice presidential nominee said also that Japan should “certainly” now pick up the $3.5-billion annual cost of the U.S. military presence in that country, where 55,000 American troops are stationed.

The declarations went beyond those previously articulated by the Dukakis campaign, which has contended only that allies should pay a “fair share” and has imposed no timetable. But Dukakis aides stood by Bentsen’s formulation, saying that Dukakis favors as an “objective and a goal” the idea that Japan and the European allies should devote the same proportion of their gross national product to defense as does the United States.

Such a change would require rapid and wholesale revision of national budgets. Japan, for example, currently spends slightly more than 1% of its gross national product on defense, while the average European ally spends about 3% and the United States spends more than 6%.

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In a news conference after an address to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, however, Bentsen contended that because U.S. allies are doing “very well from an economic standpoint,” the United States should act to equalize the burden . . . to protect the democracies of the world.”

Under questioning from reporters, Bentsen said he doubted that Japan’s defense spending could be increased five-fold “or whatever it would take to equate the burden” in only 4 years. But he said: “That would be an objective--to try and get it.

“I think we can put a lot more pressure on them than we have,” Bentsen said. “I don’t think we have pushed hard enough.” He affixed much of the blame on the State Department, which he said moves “as though they don’t want anything to roil the waters.”

In his appearance before the foreign policy group, Bentsen also gave a more specific answer than his running mate has when asked what a Dukakis Administration would do to help alleviate Mexico’s $100-billion foreign debt.

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Calling his position “controversial,” Bentsen said he favored “forgiveness” of Mexican debt in certain cases. He later made clear that part of that cost would be borne by the U.S. government, as well as by American banks, a position Dukakis had not made clear.

Vocal Response

Bentsen’s advocacy of burden-sharing has won him his most vocal response on the campaign trail in recent weeks, and aides said he decided to discuss the issue in more specific terms after the Los Angeles audience burst into a sustained ovation when Bentsen insisted that the Japanese would have to “pick up that tab.”

In the speech, Bentsen defended Dukakis’ commitment to national defense, but dwelt on the importance of economic power as a component of national strength.

“It will profit America little to gain the whole world of military superiority if we lost the soul of our economic capacity,” Bentsen said. “It will profit us little to be military hawks if the competition is between economic eagles and we are sitting ducks.”

Later Thursday, Bentsen attracted by far the largest and most enthusiastic crowd of his campaign at California State University, Chico, where more than 7,000 students filled the plaza and shouted their enthusiasm for the vice presidential nominee.

Decrying once again the Republicans’ negative campaign tactics, Bentsen told the cheering crowd: “We’re going to have a national referendum against mud-slinging and we’re going to turn this election around.”

The Texas senator was accompanied by actor Rob Lowe, to whom much of the youthful adulation was quickly transferred. As the Bentsen party climbed into its motorcade, hundreds of squealing young women pressed toward the actor’s car and refused to back away. Not until Secret Service agents formed a rope line of the sort usually reserved for what agents call a “political protectee” could the entourage safely depart.

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