A LOW-KEY, three-year effort by Japan to define a strong role for itself in Asia has come up short, with its chief rival in the region, China, emerging as the new giant.
This year, especially, will put a spotlight on Japan's second-rank image in Asia as it hosts an Asian-Pacific summit in November and copes with commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Both events are unlikely to find Japan making any new departures in regional leadership.
The Japanese have lost a considerable degree of confidence in seeing themselves as a regional player. A poll published by the Asahi newspaper last August asked Japanese which nation they felt would have the greatest influence on Asia in the 21st century. Forty-four percent said China; 30 percent said the United States. Only 16 percent said Japan.
One reason for such skepticism is a wavering Asia policy that has left many Japanese feeling outmaneuvered by China.
At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, when Japan was jolted by Western criticism for its passive role in the crisis, officials launched a series of exercises aimed at defining a new role in Asia as peace broker, economic engine, and intermediary with the West.
The central threat that Japan perceived to regional stability, and to its own economic predominance, was China. Its key strategy was to knit a web of alliances to contain China, starting with Japan's strongest regional ally, the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines.
Japan began regular summit meetings with South Korea, elevated ties with Taiwan, set up regional meetings on security matters, and set up a private ministerial summit with ASEAN economic ministers.
The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry heralded the creation of the latter in 1992 saying it was an ``epoch-making event.''
It also initiated an aggressive new China policy, sending the Japanese emperor to visit China in October 1992 despite opposition from political conservatives, and putting pressure on Beijing to soothe regional fears by providing more information on its military buildup.
But doubts have since set in, with leaders preoccupied by a stalled economy and political upheaval.
Chinese economy leaps
And it was big news when the World Bank estimated recently that the Chinese economy was already 20 percent larger than the Japanese economy.
``We're afraid Japan will drop very far behind the United States and China, in economic as well as political power,'' says Tadashi Shibuya, a former China-based executive with Nichimen Corporation trading firm. ``We're already very far behind politically, but we might fall behind economically as well.''
Like the US, China has used its ``market card'' in its regional politicking. Roughly 14 percent of Asia's exports go to Japan, versus 7.5 percent for China, based on 1991 data from Normua Research Institute in Tokyo. But since 1991, China's share of Asian exports has grown rapidly, while Japan's has declined.
And while Japanese investment in China is growing rapidly, it is tiny compared with recent investment from Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Japanese investment in China in 1993 was up 36 percent, to $2.96 billion, but that compared with $83.9 billion in the same year from Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Within Asia, the Chinese deal in bold gestures, while Japanese policy has been drawn in minute strokes.
Late last year, South Korea was quietly seething after the US worked out a nuclear accord with North Korea. China chose the moment to stage its first summit meeting in Seoul. Premier Li Peng assured the South that China would pressure the North to scrap its present nuclear plants. He also brought along 47 industry representatives.
Mr. Li also gave South Korea a plum: an agreement for direct flights between Seoul and Beijing. The Japanese fumed over the agreement, which gave the Koreans a route to Beijing over the Yellow Sea that is shorter than the more circuitous path that Japanese airlines take. Asahi newspaper called the summit ``a moment of historic consequence for the international politics of East Asia.''
Even in such a critical area as the legacy of Japanese military aggression in Asia, Japan has difficulty making a clear policy statement.
Before he came to power, Japanese Prime Minister Toiichi Murayama and his Social Democratic Party had long maintained that Japan should pay reparations to Asian victims of Japanese military aggression. Mr. Murayama had hoped to use the 50th anniversary of Japan's surrender to carry out a symbolic reconciliation with Japan's neighbors. But political conservatives within his coalition had scotched the plan.
At next November's summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Osaka, officials hope to test Japan's ability to balance its Asian interests against its relationship with the US. China is sure to rock the boat.
So anxious is Japan to forestall Chinese grandstanding that it took the unusual step last week of guaranteeing that Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui would not be invited to the summit. When Mr. Lee tried to attend the Asian Games in Hiroshima last October, China moved to block it.
Leadership role falters
While such disputes may seem minor on a global scale, Japan's difficulties in solving them are one measure of its indirection in Asia.
``There is no possibility for Japan to provide the kind of leadership in Asia that the US can provide,'' says Yoshihide Soeya, a professor of political science at Keio University in Tokyo.
``Japan's history suggests that it will not easily become a political leader in Asia,'' adds Yoshibumi Wakamiya, an editorial writer at Asahi.
``It is not just a matter of the wartime invasions; the Asian outlook in Japanese politics is still confused,'' Mr. Wakamiya says.
Meanwhile, China has pursued its own strategy of building alliances with such formerly hostile neighbors as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. China pushed its way into APEC in 1991.
While the large Japanese delegations that regularly attend APEC meetings have won a reputation for reticence, Chinese leaders at APEC make sure the cameras stay on them.