Japan's Place in the New World Order

June 08, 1991|By DANIEL BERGER

The New World Order that President Bush keeps talking about isstarting to emerge. Japan has a large place in it.

On the basis of economic strength, Japan has been entitled to an important Asian and world role for decades. For fear of giving offense and jeopardizing business, however, it has had virtually no foreign policy, only commercial policies. Now that is ending, if only as impossible to maintain. Japan has views. Japan will be heard.

The issue that drove this home was whether President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the Soviet Union would be invited to the Group of Seven (industrial powers) summit in London July 15-17. Apparently this was settled with a compromise invitation to London just after the meeting, not as part of it.

The symbolism of Mr. Gorbachev at the table would have been respectability, a dinner invitation pointing to future club membership. The substance is the aid without strings that Mr. Gorbachev hopes to bring home.

Mr. Gorbachev seeks collective loans and investment for his disastrous economy, to save the Soviet Union from break-up or fascism or Communist revival, and without a timetable to reforms that powerful interests in Moscow resist. Anything he gained would argue domestically for his continued power.

Mr. Gorbachev put the case for world support of perestroika eloquently in Oslo on Wednesday. He must care more about the substance than the symbolism of the London visit.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany is the Soviet leader's sponsor. Germany sees a role for itself in Soviet economic revival, gaining influence in return. Never mind that Germany has all it can handle absorbing East Germany.

President Bush was reticent. Former President Nixon joined the debate with an article detailing all the political matters on which Moscow should satisfy Washington first. But U.S. reticence is budgetary. The Bush administration cannot afford to have both the Soviet Union and the savings-and-loan industry as dependents.

European powers have economic reservations. They want aid to carry strings designed by the Organzation for Economic Development and Cooperaton, and for the Soviet Union to be treated as Hungary writ large.

But Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu of Japan is the Group of Seven member whose reluctance to receive Mr. Gorbachev in London was apparently overcome by the compromise, and whose resistance is the greatest barrier to the aid that Japan can most easily among the Group of Seven afford.

''His effort would likely come virtually to nothing,'' Mr. Kaifu told businessmen in Tokyo before the British announcement of compromise. ''I am against the idea of his formally attending the meeting as an official member of the group.''

The Soviet Tass news agency identified Japan as the stumbling block to an invitation.

Japan would be the proportionately largest donor of any new aid. And Japan has an agenda with the Soviet Union that is more political than economic, more bilateral than multilateral. Mr. Gorbachev's visit to Japan in April was a failure. He could not win Japanese bilateral aid because he would not give back four Kurile islands of little population or wealth that the Soviet Union seized after World War II and that Japan demands back.

Mr. Gorbachev's rivals at home were too ready to jump him for giving away the nation if he did. The best he could do was promise to reduce the garrisons on the islands and to talk about them again.

Mr. Gorbachev went on to a more satisfactory meeting with Japan's rival, President Roh Tae Woo of South Korea. The Japanese are confident that the Soviet Union needs Japanese capital to develop Eastern Siberia and that South Korea is not yet a substitute.

Throughout its long economic revival after the destruction of 1945, Japan has avoided exercising political influence even in its region, lest that alienate neighbors. On Korean unification, Chinese unification, democracy in the Philippines or other matters, Japan had little to say -- until last year, when Japan involved itself in the search for a settlement of Cambodia. This has brought only frustration, but last month, Mr. Kaifu toured ASEAN nations trying out the idea of a more assertive Japan.

''I feel acutely that Japan is expected to make even greater contributions in the Asia Pacific region -- not only in the economic sphere but in the political sphere as well,'' he said in Singapore, May 3.

Such efforts as preparations for contrition on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the Pacific War, and legislation permitting an overseas role for Japanese forces, are designed to make a larger Japanese role more acceptable to others.

Meanwhile, the position of Mr. Kaifu as head of the Liberal Democratic Party and prime minister has a new lease on life. The leadership was planning to dump him for Shintaro Abe next October. (Mr. Abe had been heading for the prime ministry in 1989 when scandal derailed him and produced Mr. Kaifu as acceptably spotless if politically weak. Mr. Kaifu has performed well and built a following. Mr. Abe was nonetheless going to get him, until failing health got Mr. Abe, who died in mid-May.)

If Mr. Gorbachev can return from London next month with financial aid which only Japan can give, the Soviet people would be heartened and he would be strengthened.

If Mr. Kaifu can procure for Japan the four islands in the Kurile chain on which so much Japanese national pride rests, he also would have a better chance to survive.

Deal, anyone?

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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