The summit in Tokyo -- putting economic issues first

AMID all the controversy stirring in the global arena, from American and NATO concerns about terrorism to East-West tugging over arms talks, is is important to keep attention focused on priorities -- on those matters that most affect the future well-being of the world community. Combating Middle Eastern terrorism is important. So too is ensuring that a meeting coming up between Mikhail Gorbachev and President Reagan takes place later this year. It is better to have the leaders of the two superpowers communicating directly rather than sparring through the headlines.

But a strong case can be made that the overriding priority at this juncture -- absolutely essential to ensuring the global equilibrium necessary to provide the atmosphere of stability in which arms talks and other political concerns can go forward -- remains that of protecting and furthering international economic growth. That is why the economic summit meeting in Tokyo in early May, involving the leaders of the industrial nations of the West and Japan, becomes so important.

It would be particularly unfortunate if concerted action on economic matters at the summit were to be sidetracked by a preoccupation with other, basically political agendas, such as the Libyan issue. That is not to say that such summits do not serve a useful role in helping to resolve political issues. Past summits have as much been ``political'' -- about combating acid rain, to name just one agenda -- as ``economic.''

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And yet, given the rapid confluence of a number of troublesome elements in the world economy, such as slackening consumer demand in the large US market, the rapid appreciation of the Japanese yen against the dollar, and slower economic growth in many third-world nations, economic affairs deserve to retain the center stage in Tokyo, May 4-6.

Unfortunately, there is some evidence that economic considerations are already taking a back seat in the summit planning. Preparing for his 12-day trip to Asia, including the summit, President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz have indicated that they will seek to forge a common Western policy on terrorism. The theme for Mr. Reagan's trip is, in fact, already being billed by White House opinion shapers as ``the winds of freedom.'' Mr. Reagan used those words in a recent speech in which he lauded the expansion of democracy in such places as Latin America and Africa.

Meantime, Wall Street is sending the administration, and the global financial community, sharp signals of concern about international financial matters. The dollar continues to drop against the yen. That in turn has sent bond prices into a tailspin. Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker raises new concerns that the dollar may be falling too fast, and thus that a tailspin could harm the American economy in the long run.

The dollar-yen issue is complicated. But Japanese banks hold some $640 billion in short-term foreign securities, much of that in the United States. What if Japan began to move its investments out of the US? Would that actually happen? Such action could not help working against the US and global economy. Further, what if Japanese banks stopped investing in future US Treasury sales? These are sales that provide a large part of the overseas investment funds necessary to help balance off massive US budget deficits.

Ensuring that the world economic climate continues favorable is absolutely essential. It's a point that must not be lost sight of by the leaders of Western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Japan as they meet in Tokyo next month.

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