China, Japan, and the United States are in a three-cornered imboglio over computers involving global strategy, trade frictions, and conflicting business interests.
The usually well-informed newspaper Nihon Keizai reports that US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger has decided to refuse consent for the export of a large scale Japanese computer to China, unless the Japanese accept safeguards which they consider excessive.
American consent is required because the computer is on COCOM's list of strategic items. COCOM is the Paris-based committee of Western nations, including the United States and Japan, that controls the export of strategic goods to communist countries.
Japanese government officials are said to be considering retaliation by vetoing the export of a large scale American computer to China. Tokyo, like Washington, has veto power over the export of items on COCOM's list.
The confusion comes at a delicate moment in Chinese-US relations. The Defense Department has held up the export of large scale American computers to China for two years.
COCOM dates back to the days of the cold war and was aimed primarily at the Soviet Union. Many American defense experts consider it anachronistic that China should still be subject to its provisions when a country like India is free to import computers of this type, with no outside control.
The Reagan administration still has not made up its mind over its major problem with Peking - what kind and how many defensive weapons to sell Taiwan. Peking is bound to be unhappy with almost any decision Washington reaches on this question. So some observers concerned with China policy, including former Vice-President Walter Mondale, suggest that the United States should try at least to remove other, less important irritants, in its relations with Peking. Delays for large scale computer exports are one such irritant.
The American computer involved is the 3033 produced by IBM. The Defense Department is said to be inclining toward allowing this sale to go through. But if it simultaneously stands firm on its objections to the Japanese computer, Hitachi's M180, Tokyo is ready to cry foul. The 3033 has a larger memory than the M180.
The 3033 is for use in oil exploration, while the M180 is to be used by a Chiness communications university for research in railway control. Both computers presumably could be used for military purposes. Thus the the Defense Department insists that the M180 be subject to the same safeguards it will apply to the 3033 - that the export take the form of a lease, with the possibility of repossessing the computor as one way of preventing diversion to military use.
The Japanese do not like these conditions. They are not sure that leasing is necessarily an effective means of preventing diversion to military uses.
The souring of Chinese relations with Washington over Taiwan could lead to nervousness over the reliability of Washington as a trade partner. Peking's thirst for high technology is bound to increase as its modernization drive gathers pace, and if the United States hesitates over what to do, other Western nations without qualms over Taiwan may step into the breech.