Japan, Host to G-7, Seeking Its Place in the World

July 04, 1993|By ROBERT J. CARRARO

The recent political turmoil in Japan -- a humiliating no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, dissolution of parliament and a national election scheduled for July 18 -- comes at a time when the Japanese have been struggling to redefine the nature of their international engagements.

Trade liberalization, Russian aid and U.S. relations are just some of the foreign policy issues that demand immediate attention.

This week, Japan will host the leaders of the world's major industrialized nations for the annual Group of Seven summit. With a global trade surplus of more than $132 billion, Japan has come under increased pressure to further open its markets and to stimulate its sputtering economy.

Japan has also been under pressure to coordinate multilateral actions on aid to Russia, and is being urged by the other G-7 nations to provide even more aid than its recent offer of $1.8 billion.

Japan's dilemma has been how to lead multilateral aid efforts while not undermining its claim in its long-standing territorial dispute with Russia.

At the G-7 meeting, Wednesday through Friday, Japan is expected to raise issues that represent the views of developing countries, in particular those nations of the Asia-Pacific region. China's growing economic strength, the proliferation of arms and uncertainty over American intentions in Asia have contributed to calls by some Asian governments for an expanded Japanese political and security role in the region.

At the same time, however, the collective memory of World War II has inhibited rapid expansion of Japan's regional political influence.

Japanese officials are delighted by the appointment of Walter Mondale as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan, a move they see as confirmation of Japan's increasing stature in the world. Japan's foreign policy has long been based on a healthy relationship with the United States. Still, the heavy emphasis in recent months by the United States on trade issues is evidence of the changing dynamics in the U.S.-Japan relationship.

As the Japanese struggle with the idea of Japan as a global power, their most difficult, and most controversial, problem is the issue of overseas military contributions. Japan's unique status in recent decades as an economic power that avoids military entanglements has led some Japanese to conclude that they have been decidedly on the outside of mainstream international dialogue.

Now that Japan is seeking permanent representation on the United Nations Security Council, some Japanese have openly called for revision of the American-imposed "peace" constitution to authorize broader Japanese participation in U.N. military actions than is presently allowed. Even though they would then be expected to take on more of the military and financial burdens associated with U.N. peacekeeping operations, the Japanese see permanent representation on the Security Council as the best way to wring global political authority from economic influence. This would bring Japan further away from the "one country pacifism" that has dominated its postwar foreign policy toward what many Japanese see as the status of a "normal" nation-state.

The road to "normal" nation-statehood is, however, a rough one. The deaths of two Japanese in Cambodia prior to last month's elections there sent shock waves through Japanese society. Last September, after two years of heated debate that eventually led to the legislation that allows for a restricted Self Defense Force (SDF) role in U.N. peacekeeping operations, Japan sent nearly 700 troops to Cambodia for non-military activities such as road repair. Although there is general support for this limited SDF role, public opposition to loosening constitutional restraints remains strong.

No one is certain what Japan's political landscape will look like after the July 18 national election. But the transition from the system of one-party rule that has prevailed for nearly forty years is expected to be dramatic. The prospect of coalition government means that Japan's ability to make difficult decisions on foreign policy issues, including trade, will be greatly diminished for some time to come.

Robert Carraro, a former journalist, is an officer of the Asia Foundation's Center for Asian Pacific Affairs in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own.

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