Land of the Golden Sun

September 06, 1991

Outlaw Willie Sutton used to say that he robbed banks because that's where the money is. On the same principle, Russia would be wise to look eastward to Japan, the land of a very golden sun.

For it is in Japan that the world's greatest hoard of liquid capital is to be found. Its international reserves are in excess of $73 billion. Its net overseas assets are estimated at $328 billion, making it the world's largest creditor for seven years running. With $13 billion in direct investments to developing countries and $54 billion elsewhere, it won another blue ribbon. Its government foreign aid outlay is nearing $10 billion amid predictions it could rise to $30 billion by the end of the century.

If this isn't enough to get Russian attention, consider what happened last March. In that month, Ichuro Ozawa, secretary general of the ruling Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, went to Moscow with a tantalizing $26 billion financial aid package in his pocket. Consider, too, what happened in April when Mikhail S. Gorbachev became the first Soviet head of government to visit Tokyo.

What happened was nothing. The trip was a flop. Buffeted by hardline pressures at home, Mr. Gorbachev spurned the Japanese asking price for its aid package: return of the Kurile Islands group seized by Moscow near the end of World War II.

Now that the hardliners are in disgrace and Russian reformers in power, the issue is rising again. Russia's vice foreign minister Georgi Kunadze told the Jiji Press Agency soon after the failed coup that settlement of the islands dispute was now a top priority. He said Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin had softened his earlier no-give-back positions.

The $26 billion treasure dangled by Mr. Ozawa dwarfs any aid plan the United States has contemplated or could offer. It is exceeded only by the $30 billion Germany has channeled to the Soviet Union since 1989 as a form of compensation for its unification with once-Communist East Germany.

Considering the economic catastrophe that has befallen the Soviet Union, the Japanese offer strikes us as a bargain. The northern islands are of little economic value and flagging strategic importance. Siberia, a vast storehouse of oil, mineral and timber wealth, has long been an enticement to resource-poor Japan. If Russia decides to downsize the excessive Soviet military presence in the Far East, Japan could respond by offering the Soviet fleet guaranteed access to the Sea of Okhotsk.

Both Japanese businessmen and Russians in the Vladivostok-Khabarovsk region are eager for a settlement of the Kuriles dispute and for greater economic links. It appears to be a win-win deal not only for both principals but for financially strapped Western nations that want a big Japanese role in bailing out the Soviet Union. Willie Sutton would understand.

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