Debate Could Stall Japan's Gulf Aid

Ruling party's $9 billion proposal to help US-led coalition comes under fire in Parliament

A CHOICE by Japan's ruling party to let parliament decide on how to raise the $9 billion pledged for the Gulf war has served to entangle the aid package in a thicket of thorny politics, perhaps to the point of being abandoned. By placing its pledge under a national spotlight just before important elections, instead of quickly raising the cash through special bonds, leaders of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have purposely sparked a vigorous debate about Japan's role in the world and its ties with the United States, the major recipient of the promised Japanese ante.

But the ensuing debate has also effectively stalled delivery of the $9 billion. US officials have been told to wait at least until April, when the war will be already three-months old and possibly ending. Many Japanese businessmen had wanted their government to donate the money to avoid criticism of Japan by Congress and the possibility of trade retaliation after the war.

Three weeks after announcing the $9 billion pledge, the LDP has yet to present a financing bill to parliament. Japanese leaders, who were surprised when war broke out, are hoping for a quick end to the conflict so that Japan might assume a more comfortable task of using its economic strength to rebuild Iraq and other Middle East countries, rather than taking sides.

A few Japanese commentators have even suggested that some or all of the $9 billion be pledged for a Middle East ``Marshall Plan.'' The Foreign Ministry has launched a study on various postwar roles for Japan.

An LDP attempt to send troops to the Gulf last fall also got bogged down in legislative debate, killing the measure. In contrast, the LDP chose to avoid a delay in carrying out a decision, made last September, to give $2 billion to the US-led effort by bypassing opposition parties.

And the government also bypassed a national debate in its decision last month to authorize, by simple change of a decree, the use of Japanese military aircraft to transport war refugees from Jordan, if and when needed.

For the $9 billion pledge, however, the LDP decided to ask for new taxes, throwing the issue to the full parliament, where the three main opposition parties control the upper house. The second-largest opposition party, Komeito (Clean Government Party), holds the key to passage of the measure. The party is connected to a powerful Buddhist lay group called Sokka Gakkai, which claims 1.8 million members who actively promote world peace.

Komeito, which holds 21 of the 262 seats in the upper house, has used its thin leverage well. It successfully demanded that the LDP gain a US promise that the $9 billion will not be used to buy weapons and ammunition. And it wants $3.9 billion of the $9 billion to come out of the Japanese military budget.

LDP king-pin Noburo Takeshita, who is close to Komeito leaders, also is helping the small party to make gains in elections, due in April, for 13 governors and 125 mayors. In the race for Tokyo governor, for instance, Komeito was given a strong voice by the LDP in choosing a candidate to be sponsored by both parties.

Komeito's demand in defense cuts may also delay or even suspend government plans for the purchase of expensive weapons systems, such as air-borne radar planes, that the US wants Japan to buy. The need for budget-cuts has split the LDP, furthering the delay.

The LDP also faces a tough election campaign against the leading opposition party. The Japan Socialist Party (which recently changed its English-language name to the Social Democratic Party of Japan) has launched street protests and has begun to use scare slogans, such as ``Don't send our children to the battlefront.''

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