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China Checks Japan's Power in Asia

In 1991, Toyko tried to flex its muscles in Asia and contain Beijing's influence. But its own political and economic woes have stalled the initiative, and China is winning.

By Edith TerrySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 10, 1995



TOKYO

A LOW-KEY, three-year effort by Japan to define a strong role for itself in Asia has come up short, with its chief rival in the region, China, emerging as the new giant.

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This year, especially, will put a spotlight on Japan's second-rank image in Asia as it hosts an Asian-Pacific summit in November and copes with commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Both events are unlikely to find Japan making any new departures in regional leadership.

The Japanese have lost a considerable degree of confidence in seeing themselves as a regional player. A poll published by the Asahi newspaper last August asked Japanese which nation they felt would have the greatest influence on Asia in the 21st century. Forty-four percent said China; 30 percent said the United States. Only 16 percent said Japan.

One reason for such skepticism is a wavering Asia policy that has left many Japanese feeling outmaneuvered by China.

At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, when Japan was jolted by Western criticism for its passive role in the crisis, officials launched a series of exercises aimed at defining a new role in Asia as peace broker, economic engine, and intermediary with the West.

The central threat that Japan perceived to regional stability, and to its own economic predominance, was China. Its key strategy was to knit a web of alliances to contain China, starting with Japan's strongest regional ally, the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines.

Japan began regular summit meetings with South Korea, elevated ties with Taiwan, set up regional meetings on security matters, and set up a private ministerial summit with ASEAN economic ministers.

The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry heralded the creation of the latter in 1992 saying it was an ``epoch-making event.''

It also initiated an aggressive new China policy, sending the Japanese emperor to visit China in October 1992 despite opposition from political conservatives, and putting pressure on Beijing to soothe regional fears by providing more information on its military buildup.

But doubts have since set in, with leaders preoccupied by a stalled economy and political upheaval.

Chinese economy leaps

And it was big news when the World Bank estimated recently that the Chinese economy was already 20 percent larger than the Japanese economy.

``We're afraid Japan will drop very far behind the United States and China, in economic as well as political power,'' says Tadashi Shibuya, a former China-based executive with Nichimen Corporation trading firm. ``We're already very far behind politically, but we might fall behind economically as well.''

Like the US, China has used its ``market card'' in its regional politicking. Roughly 14 percent of Asia's exports go to Japan, versus 7.5 percent for China, based on 1991 data from Normua Research Institute in Tokyo. But since 1991, China's share of Asian exports has grown rapidly, while Japan's has declined.