Japan has assigned itself an important new international role--keeping China firmly attached to the Western bloc.
Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki revealed Japanese thinking on this matter to reporters recently while preparing for the visit to Tokyo of his Chinese counterpart, Zhao Ziyang, this week. But his remarks were aimed at his fellow participants in the seven-nation economic summit in Versailles, France, June 3 to 6.
Europeans often complain that Japan is not playing an international role commen-surate with its economic power. But Mr. Suzuki said this view overlooks Japan's important nonmilitary contribution to world security.
For example, China's foreign policy was vital to the West, and Peking currently was well-disposed in this direction. This, at least in part, could be credited to China's growing relationship with Japan, the prime minister claimed.
Now that the Chinese have sorted out their own vision of the future, Japan will make every possible effort to help China modernize and develop, Prime Minister Suzuki pledged. Ultimately, some Japanese say, this will backfire because it will have created a powerful Asian economic rival. But the need to lock China firmly into the Western bloc is paramount at present in official minds here.
The importance of the Peking-Tokyo relationship has been strongly reaffirmed by the two countries, along with firm commitments by Suzuki and Zhao to further promote amicable ties in all areas.
In the 10 years since normalization of diplomatic relations, it has not always been smooth sailing between China and Japan. But there is general satisfaction on both sides now that the relationship is on the right track.
Analysts here feel that China currently has much to gain and, therefore, is more obviously enthusiastic about promoting ties. Certainly the Chinese appear to attach great importance to the ''Japan card'' for both diplomatic and economic reasons.
This is seen as one reason Zhao went out of his way to include in the official itinerary a private meeting to express his appreciation to the man who achieved the original diplomatic normalization breakthrough, former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. This is so even though the latter is under a political cloud (facing the prospect of a long jail sentence in the multimillion dollar Lockheed bribes scandal).
Zhao made it clear China has high expectations of Japan in its ambitions to be a powerful, modern industrial state. There were mutual benefits, he said, in Japan cooperating with China in such fields as natural resources development, e.g., oil, nonferrous metals, coal; construction of an efficient infrastructure, especially modern transport systems; science and technological development; and promotion of efficient business management in Chinese enterprises. Japan is already putting up capital for joint oil exploration in Bohai Bay and is trying to get a toehold in a much wider area of the Yellow and South China seas.
The Japanese appear to have gotten over their chagrin of the past couple of years, when China abruptly suspended (and in many cases eventually canceled) multibillion dollar contracts with local firms for help in grandiose industrial expansion projects the country wasn't ready for.
On both sides the economic sights have been lowered. On the political front, it is not quite so easy. China is ardent to have Japan on its side in the fight to counter the Soviet Union's ''expansionist, hegemonistic, and aggressive behavior worldwide,'' as Zhao put it to Suzuki.
The Japanese, however, have to live with the Russians, and would like this line soft-pedaled. But they do see an important political role for the Peking-Tokyo alliance in working for regional peace and security. China, it is felt, can play a strong restraining and balancing role in Indochina and on the Korean peninsula that would be beneficial to Japan.
Tokyo, meanwhile, as a longstanding bona fide member of the Western bloc, can help promote better understanding of China in both the United States and Western Europe.