Asian Games Put Japan In Bind

September 13, 1994|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- The starting gun for the much-ballyhooed Asian Games, a continental Olympics, is still almost a month away but, much to the dismay of the Japanese hosts, the first titanic clash has already begun.

As is often the case in international athletic contests, the dispute has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with national pride and symbolism.

"It's really a headache," said Kishichiro Amae, Deputy Press Secretary for Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At issue is whether Lee Teng-hui, a sports fan, will attend. On one side is tiny but wealthy Taiwan, the country he serves as president. On the other is giant China, which contends that Taiwan isn't a country and adamantly opposes anything that suggests official recognition.

Playing both sides

Thrust uncomfortably in between is Japan, which has long maintained relationships with both Taiwan and China by pursuing a complex diplomatic strategy that amounts, in the words of one political observer, to not inviting both to the same dinner party.

The strategy has been fashioned piecemeal since 1972, when Japan established diplomatic relations with China and severed political ties with Taiwan, while simultaneously retaining a tight economic relationship. This is essentially what the United States did.

Here, the results of the policy could be a model for fence-straddling. To avoid offending China, its planes fly into the usual international airport, Narita, satisfying the large country's desire for prestige, while Taiwan is the sole foreign country whose carriers are privileged to use the far more convenient Haneda on the fringes of Tokyo, a victory for any pragmatist.

Many Japanese banks avoid opening even representative offices in Taiwan, but the largest of all, Daiichi-Kangyo, is well established and international companies with a presence in both countries fill any gaps in service. Little if anything has been done to embargo exports, with shipment from Japan to Taiwan continuing to exceed shipments to China by more than 25 percent.

Other than the numerous disputes touching almost any athletic event these days, there was little to suggest a diplomatic fracas, or any fracas, would touch these games. The Japanese city of Hiroshima, where the games will be conducted, has spent years meticulously preparing for contingencies. Billions of dollars have been invested in athletic facilities and billions more on public works, like roads and airport facilities.

Recent history suggested China and Taiwan had worked out a truce. After years of strife over flags and names, acceptable reference terms and symbols had been worked out. The games were held in Beijing four years ago. Taiwan attended, but no political figures were there officially.

Dozens of very important non-athletes from other countries are expected to attend the games here, according to the Hiroshima organizing committee, but it didn't seem to occur to anyone that Taiwan's leaders might be on the list.

Earlier this summer, however, the chairman of the Olympic Council of Asia, Ahmad Al-Fahad of Kuwait, extended an invitation to Taiwanese President Lee. News of the invitation by the game's umbrella organizing group emerged only recently, and when it was announced this week that he accepted, an uproar ensued.

Threats of consequences

China has threatened dire consequences if Mr. Lee is allowed to come, as well as a potential boycott of the games. Taiwan has threatened to boycott the games as well, and additionally threatened to boycott Japanese products or levy special import taxes.

Leaks to newspapers have indicated the government feels it has little option but to follow China's wishes and ban Mr. Lee, but several members of the Diet, Japan's parliament, have publicly expressed support for Taiwan. Buried underneath intensifying recriminations are issues of international agreements and law -- Japan has agreed to accept people invited by the Olympic Committee, while in "the spirit" of the 1972 agreement, according to the Foreign Ministry, it has committed itself to not accepting visits from leaders of Taiwan.

Inevitably, the controversy has worked its way up to Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama. As leader of the country since June, he has distinguished himself by announcing policy shifts from idealistic stances long held by his Socialist Party, particularly in terms of national security, in favor of those long practiced by the country.

The current dispute, however, breaks new ground, posing perhaps his first genuine dilemma. In comments to the Japanese press, Mr. Murayama emphasized he did not perceive the games as an opportunity to race to an initial decision. He expressed hope that a resolution would be "amicably" settled by talks among China, Taiwan, and the Olympic Council of Asia, precluding Japan's involvement.

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