JAPAN is trying for the first time since World War II to convert its economic brawn into diplomatic muscle in Asia. The test case is Cambodia, a quagmire of conflict that has defied solution by the big powers for more than a decade, and in the past year has given Japan little to show for its efforts.
``The Japanese have been made red-faced,'' an official with the Vietnamese Embassy in Tokyo says.
Japanese leaders tout their sensitivity to Asian ways, compared with the tactics of Western nations. ``Cambodia is in Asia, our backyard, and historically the people in Indochina do not have the same negative feelings toward Japan as other parts of Asia,'' a Foreign Ministry official says.
Japan first played host to talks between leaders of four Cambodian factions in Tokyo last June. The talks were seen as ill-timed and unprepared.
Then in February Japan offered ``improvements'' on a Cambodia peace plan that had been presented last November by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Known as P-5, that big-power plan was a delicate compromise between China and the Soviet Union (the two major military suppliers to the conflict) along with France, Britain, and the United States. It calls for disarming the armies of the four Cambodian factions, dismantling of the regime in Phnom Penh to allow the UN temporarily to administer the country, and the holding of UN-supervised elections.
The plan was coolly received by the Communist-led Phnom Penh regime. The Khmer Rouge, the strongest of three anti-Phnom Penh guerrilla forces, also has been lukewarm toward P-5.
Japanese diplomats, who have good contacts with all parties except the Khmer Rouge, began a shuttle diplomacy among Asian capitals in February. They offered new ideas on how the Khmer Rouge could be prevented from taking power again.
One idea was to ban any faction from running in UN elections if it failed to lay down its arms. Japan also suggested that the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge rule (1975-78) be ``explored.''
Meanwhile, Japan decided in March to help the Phnom Penh regime by giving $1 million to aid Cambodians who have been made refugees inside the country by the fighting. The money was channeled through a UN relief agency.
Hun Sen, the prime minister of the Phnom Penh regime, arrived in Tokyo on April 18 for a week of medical checkups, but also held long talks with Japanese officials.
Hun Sen wants ``a visible guarantee'' that the UN will not allow the Khmer Rouge to return to power by force, says Masaharu Kohno of the Japanese Foreign Ministry. But officials were not able to offer Hun Sen much. ``The history of Cambodia - anger, fear - how do you wipe out these things?'' he asks.
THE Japanese proposal brought quiet concern from a few of the big powers who did not want to give the Cambodian factions any excuse to avoid or dilute P-5.
Chinese Premier Li Peng told visiting Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Nakayama on April 6 that he doubted the effectiveness of the proposal, warning that any amendments to P-5 would mean delay. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, on a visit to Japan from April 16-19, found the proposal ``interesting,'' but suggested the next step was on the part of the Cambodian parties themselves. The US also was cool but somewhat supportive, Japanese officials say.
One Cambodia faction leader, former Prime Minister Son Sann, told Japan in a March visit to Tokyo that it should work with, not against, the five big powers. Talks between the factions are moving toward resuming in May.
Japanese Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu will announce a new policy toward Southeast Asia on May 3. He is expected to propose that Japan be a partner to settling differences in the region. Political leaders in Tokyo are eager for the Japanese military to participate in any UN peace-keeping operations in Cambodia.