A Reagan administration bid to get Japan to transfer military-related technology to the United States has touched off a sharp debate in government circles here on the wisdom of selling the country's industrial secrets to its major economic rival.
In Tokyo for comprehensive talks with Japanese officials, Deputy Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said earlier this week, "We intend to pursue a policy of encouraging a rational division of labor" in the military technology sphere. Discussions with the Japanese are still at the "initial stage," he said, but "progressing very well."
Japanese officials and defense analysts, however, suggested that Japan's powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry has strongly objected to the U.S. overture on the grounds that it would pull the plug on the highly classified advanced electronics and laser know-how the United States is thought to be eyeing.
Tokyo's ultimate action on the request is important because it comes at a time when U.S. officials remain determined to get Japan to shoulder a greater share of the burden for its own defense to help offset American military commitments in the Pacific.
Faced with huge government deficits, Tokyo has backed away from substantially boosting its military spending, citing the scarcity of public funds and the lack of a popular mandate for an expanded defense role.
The idea of helping to meet American demands for a more equitable burden-sharing arrangement by supplying the United States with defense-related technology has appealed to many top Japanese officials, sources here said, as a means of demonstrating Japan's good faith and easing friction between the two countries over military issues.
The proposal, however, has stirred up a strong pacifist response from opposition politicians in the parliament and elements in the Japanese public who charge that the technology trade would violate the principles of Japan's ban on arms exports.
More important, it has struck a deep nationalistic chord among trade ministry bureaucrats who police the export ban and are concerned with protecting the high-grade Japanese technology that is central to the future of the country's formidable industrial base.
In June, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger conveyed the U.S. request for the first time during talks in Washington with the chief of the Japanese Defense Agency, Joji Omura. Earlier this month, officials from the two countries agreed in working-level talks to expand the exchange of defense technologies "on a reciprocal basis."
The Reagan administration approach marks a major departure in the 30-year-old mutual security ties between the two countries. So far, the flow of military know-how has been overwhelmingly in Japan's favor, but Pentagon officials have now stressed that it should be brought into better balance.
In the opinion of Foreign Ministry officials, which is shared by the Japan Defense Agency, the country's ban on weapon exports does not apply to potential sales of military technology to the United States because they are already provided for under the conditions of the existing Japanese-U.S. mutual security treaty.
Yutaka Wada, director general of the Defense Agency's equipment bureau, said that the Pentagon, "wants more of a two-way street. The United States has very generously given most of its sophisticated equipment to Japan . . . and has not received very much in return. We recognize the fairness of the argument."
Japanese officials said that their American counterparts have yet to name specific items but have talked broadly about advanced electronics, laser optics and a range of state-of-the-art technologies. The United States, they said, is expected to give Japan its shopping list by the end of the year.
Foreign Ministry officials, sources here said, plan to deflect criticism of the potential deals by pointing out that Japan would still be able to reject specific U.S. requests for know-how in highly sensitive areas on the grounds that the United States has turned back similar Japanese requests in the past.
Any final agreement, Wada said, would only cover defense-related systems developed under government defense contracts because "it would be impossible for the government to force the private sector to supply technology" developed on a purely commercial basis.
Carlucci was in Tokyo to urge the Japanese to make greater efforts to expand their defense role in light of Soviet military expansion. According to government sources here, however, he told the Japanese that the Reagan administration would be looking for progress on the technology transfer issue during current parliamentary deliberations.
A top Foreign Ministry official, quoted in Japanese press reports, suggested that the Cabinet-level decision needed to break the deadlock would have to wait until parliament recesses in mid-November because of Japanese leaders' concern that the issue could disrupt its discussions and block the passage of key domestic policies.