Japan's Quiet Entrance on the Diplomatic Stage

THE cease-fire agreement signed in Tokyo last week may not bring Cambodia any closer to peace, but it did mark Japan's emergence as a global political actor. Japan's behind-the-scenes role in arranging the meeting and its support for Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan's controversial policy on Indochina underlines a growing split with Washington. So great has been the concern about the Thai-Japanese approach that Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon recently flew to Rome to meet secretly with the Thai premier's advisers.

Significant elements of Japan's establishment have become frustrated with Washington's continued hard-line policy toward Vietnam and Cambodia even after withdrawal of Vietnamese combat troops from Cambodia last September. The US denies Vietnam diplomatic recognition, trade, and aid, pending satisfactory resolution of the Cambodia problem. Out of deference to American sensitivity, Japanese economic aid to Vietnam has remained frozen.

The failure of the Paris conference to resolve the Cambodia conflict and the difficulty of achieving the comprehensive settlement pushed by Washington have led some Japanese diplomats to search for other avenues, including dealing directly with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Japan's search for an active role has also been spurred by the belief it would have to underwrite much of any peacekeeping and postwar reconstruction in Cambodia.

While seeking to grab Japan's checkbook, neither Washington nor the other powers have given much consideration to its political views. The fact that Japan was not consulted before the ``big five'' of the United Nations Security Council met in Paris last January to discuss a peace plan for Cambodia was particularly rankling to Tokyo.

Following the Paris meeting, a Japanese official bluntly explained his country's unhappiness to the Americans with a football metaphor. ``Japan wanted to be in the huddle rather than be on the team after a touchdown,'' he said.

In February, Japan announced that a senior Foreign Ministry official would visit Phnom Penh for a firsthand assessment. The State Department, which has banned all US executive-branch contact with the Hun Sen government, expressed concern that the visit could only confer legitimacy on the regime. The Japanese ignored that objection. But before visiting Phnom Penh, Masaharu Kohno, director of the Japanese Foreign Ministry's Southeast Asia division, came to Washington for consultation and showed Japan's own peace plan - which called for elections in Cambodia with a limited UN participation. The State Department politely dismissed the plan.

Mr. Kohno, however, returned from Phnom Penh impressed by the growing free market and pragmatism of the regime's leaders. Japanese diplomats concluded it was time to deal seriously with Hun Sen and promote a settlement between him and Prince Sihanouk.

Mr. Chatichai, who had been seeking to turn Indochina's battlefields into marketplaces, became the perfect foil for Japan's assumption of diplomatic leadership in Asia. According to news reports, during his trip to Japan in April, Chatichai proposed to Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu that Tokyo host a meeting between Sihanouk and Hun Sen. But as I learned during a recent trip to Thailand, it was Japanese officials who quietly urged Chatichai to suggest the idea to Kaifu. Within days preparations were under way for the meeting.

Publicly, the Americans could only welcome the initiative. But there was concern in Washington that the idea of an immediate cease-fire proposed by the Thais and endorsed by the Japanese might be signed by the Cambodian parties and that it could derail the American plan for a comprehensive settlement. Richard Solomon's warning to the Thai advisers during the secret encounter in Rome clearly has not had any effect on the Thais, but it serves as reminder of Washington's growing divergence with its Asian allies.

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