Japan Tightens Ties With China

Kaifu trip this month signals improving political as well as economic links with Beijing

WHILE Washington debates how to mend ties with China, Japan will push ahead in August to not only patch up relations with its Asian neighbor but to create a new political intimacy.Less concerned than the United States about human rights in China, Japan has sent four top ministers to Beijing so far this year as a warm-up for a trip by Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu from Aug. 10-13. Mr. Kaifu will be the first leader of a major industrialized nation to visit China since Japan and most Western nations imposed sanctions after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. "This trip is the symbolic normalization of relations," says Nobuo Maruyama, China specialist at the Institute for Developing Economies in Tokyo. To help pave the way for Kaifu's trip, Japan was able to dampen criticism of China at the July summit of seven industrialized countries. A Japanese official visited Beijing July 22 to report on the summit's results. "Up to now, China has seen us as an important economic partner," says a Japanese Foreign Ministry official. "But it also is beginning to see us as a very important political partner in shaping events in Asia and the world."

Softening hard-liners Japanese officials say a new political intimacy with China has enabled them to soften Beijing's stance on such issues as support for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, support for North Korea, human rights, and arms exports. "We have succeeded little by little," says the Foreign Ministry official, "to pull China onto the international stage." The US government, meanwhile, spent much of July debating whether to limit trade privileges with China. A bill passed by Congress to do just that awaits President Bush's expected veto. Perhaps as a sign that political ties are stronger between Asia's biggest nation and its richest, Kaifu is not expected to bring a big aid package with him, unlike past visits by Japanese prime ministers. One reason is that China is in the middle of receiving a $6 billion loan from Japan that does not end until 1995. That low-interest loan, the third from Japan since 1979, was offered in 1988 by Noboru Takeshita, the last Japanese prime minister to visit China. After the Tiananmen massacre, that loan was suspended, but then resumed last November, restoring Japan's status as China's biggest aid-giver. The Kaifu trip also provides Japan a chance to discourage an increasing tendency by many countries to ask Tokyo for money. Such requests have mounted since Japan became the world's largest aid giver in 1990 and also because it was a big donor to the US in the Gulf war. "Japan is seen now as a cash-dispensing machine," says Mr. Maruyama, "and it wants to change that by applying a strict aid policy toward China." But the Kaifu trip also comes just four months after Japan announced a major shift in its aid policy from merely responding to aid requests case by case to now judging a country's record on military spending, arms trade, level of democracy and markets, and environmental policies. The Japanese leader is not expected to push China hard on these requirements, but he may be obliged to bring them up. "Kaifu has to at least say something in public about the new aid principles," says Takashi Inoguchi, a political science professor at the University of Tokyo's Institute of Asian Studies. "But he will not be concrete."

Reluctant to criticize The new aid principles are not objective criteria, but just political intentions, says the Foreign Ministry official, and will be weighed against Japan's economic ties with China. "But we do hope China will conduct itself in a moderate way," he says. On the possibility of Japan asking China to curb its arms trade, he says such a move would be difficult because the Chinese military largely controls such exports. "Countries which sell weapons may not be welcome to receive Japanese aid," says Maruyama. "But China has already rejected Japan's idea. It is very difficult to implement this policy." Japan may apply greater emphasis to asking China to reduce sulfur emissions of coal-fired plants that send pollutants drifting over to Japan. "Acid rain is becoming more and more serious for us," says the Foreign Ministry official. "But it is difficult to educate Chinese leaders about the environment when economic development is on their minds."

Oil and coal exploration China requested a $5.1 billion loan last January from Japan's Export-Import Bank to improve its exploration and extraction of oil and coal deposits. "In the 1990s, China's economy faces many troubles," say Maruyama. "Its deficit is large, and many of its projects will be short of energy." But the request has met a cool response, since China already has been granted two energy loans totalling $7 billion. Another loan would leave the government-run Export-Import Bank highly vulnerable to any default by China. Chinese officials have also asked Japan in recent months for help in developing suspected oil deposits in its Tarim Basin in western China. In April, the Japan National Oil Corp. agreed to do a geological survey of the fields. "China is in big hurry for oil," says Dr. Inoguchi. "It might be a net importer by mid-1990s. And China is also very afraid of losing financial credit as world money flows to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. It will need Japanese money more than ever." China also asked Japan earlier this year to take Chinese workers in low-wage jobs. While reluctant to accept Asian immigrants, Japan is trying to set up a private association to employ "trainees" from China, and perhaps other countries. After his China visit, Kaifu will go to Mongolia for two days, the first Japanese prime minister to visit that nation. He is expected to offer aid for new political and economic reforms in the former Communist-run country.

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