Power of Positive Participation : Tokyo's role in gulf crisis illuminates problems of Japanese foreign policy

The diplomatic situation for Japan in the Persian Gulf crisis could hardly be more delicate. For one thing, this nation of collected islands is wholly dependent on foreign oil for all that it does, and so much of that oil comes from the gulf. For another, Japan is prevented by its constitution--imposed on it in the settlement of World War II--from developing or deploying anything other than a force purely for self-defense.

So as a growing number of nations are sending arms and men to the crisis region, Tokyo is forced to sit quietly in the background. On one level, this low-profile position is one that the Japanese are comfortable with. Their own postwar foreign policy is still evolving, their relationship with the West still under scrutiny. For the Japanese, the best course of action is often the one that permits it to go quietly about its business.

But they realize as well as anyone that in the long run, a weak foreign policy is bad for business and diplomacy. As an emerging economic superpower, the world expects Japan to take its rightful place at the top table of world powers. Japan wants its place in the sun, too. It seeks to be consulted by Washington on the big issues; it seeks, for example, permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council.

But unable to send troops and in the position of not wishing to alienate its Arab oil vendors, Japan needs to figure out its best profile in this crisis. Tokyo was right in agreeing to join the embargo early, even before the key Security Council sanctions vote last week, and now it would be well advised to assume the role of one of the anti-Hussein coalition's key underwriters.

Japan would be a key beneficiary of a more stable gulf region and would be an even bigger loser than the United States or Britain if the place went to pieces. It could offer to help bankroll, for instance, the cost of any U.N. Security Council peace-keeping effort if one is established. That would be good policy--and would make new friends and influence a lot of people.

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