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Power shifts among US, Japan, and India at Asia's aid bank

Since its founding in 1966 during the Vietnam war, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) carried the luxury of ever-expanding budgets, strong US backing, and the ease of lending money to the region's smaller, fast-growing, free-market nations.

Today, the ADB finds American support slackening and its budget working on a ''zero-sum game,'' threatening to split the genial Asia-style consensus of an efficient, conservative development bank.

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And for the first time India -- the world's second most populous nation -- is banging loudly on the ADB loan window, asking for a goodly share of money.

Based on interviews with officials in the ADB's Manila headquarters, all of these pressures may be a useful shake-up for a regional multilateral bank that has lived under the shadow of the World Bank.

In fact, the ADB crisis could prove a test case for the future of multilateral aid banks.

On two points, the United States under President Ronald Reagan is getting what it wants: more aid to the private sector in developing countries and a reduction in the US contribution in the ADB.

Only 10 nations receive a majority of ADB's ''soft'' (1 percent interest) and ''hard'' loans (at 11 percent, which ran $1.7 billion last year). Those countries are mainly ones in the US-backed noncommunist camp, such as Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea.

To keep pace with Asia's fast economies, however, the ADB wants a 125 percent increase in contributions from its donors over the next five years. As in the past, it expects the US, Japan, and Western Europe to divide the tab by about one-third each. That delicate share of power at the ADB, however, appears in jeopardy as the budget-constrained US balks at the 125 percent increase.

''I very much understand US efforts to reconstruct its economy. but nevertheless the reduced contribution has very serious repercussion on the Asian region,'' says ADB president Masao Fujioka.

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One repercussion is a financial vacuum, with pressure for Japan to step in where the US withdraws. But, says Mr. Fujioka, ''The Japanese should not dominate Asia.''

Japan, as well as other donor nations, heartily agrees. ''We don't want to give the ADB to the Japanese on a plate,'' a bank lawyer said. ''That might mean too many ADB contracts would go to Japan.'' (Japan gets 31 percent of ADB procurement, compared with a US share of 7.42 percent.)

Another reason is more political. ''The Japanese have a history in the region from World War II, so they want to keep a low profile,'' says Paul Kohling, a West German director of the ADB. ''Nobody says it, but that is the feeling.''

Already, however, Japan is the ADB's largest contributor, because it has paid in almost half of the donations to the bank's soft-loan window. And it is Asia's largest bilateral aid giver as well. The US, which hints that Japan can afford to contribute more, offered $520 million for the soft loan kitty for the next five years. That would mean no increase for that part of the bank's lending which goes to the poorest nations, such as Nepal and Bangladesh.

''Fortunately, Japan would be too embarrassed to take a higher profile,'' Mr. Kohling says.

What is the US intention?

''I get the feeling that the US is not only pulling away from the ADB, but Asia,'' says the bank's vice-president, S. Stanley Katz. For hard-loan contributions in the next five years, the US share would be $31 million to $42.5 million a year, a figure that depends on talks now under way to decide exactly how much money will actually be given the ADB or just available in an emergency (''callable capital''). The ADB might be forced into more expensive borrowing, which means higher-cost loans for its poor countries.

''We no longer live in a world where everyone thinks the ADB or the World Bank will be funded forever,'' says ADB treasurer Edgar J. Roberts Jr.

Also hanging heavy over this year's talks to refill the bank's coffers is a request by India for 17 percent of its loans, as World Bank lending shifts away from India to China. Like a big fish in a small pond, the ''outsize'' nation of India, with over 600 million people near poverty levels, could swallow any ADB increases in loans to other Asian nations. By ADB formulas, it could take 70 percent of the bank's loans.

India's request reflects a long-term concern in the bank. With Far East nations booming, once-poor Asia now has an increasing diversity of wealth. A Bangladesh peasant earning less than $100 a year has little in common anymore with a Korean entrepreneur. Regionwide ADB priorities of energy and agriculture don't apply the same to all nations. Just when a nation should be ''graduated'' out of ADB assistance is a difficult question.

If there is hope for the bank's financing woes, it may lie in its new efforts to seek cofinancing of development projects with private banks. So far, capital markets in Asia have been a borrower's market. Ready credit is available, and countries enjoy the no-strings-attached loans from commercial banks. One indicator of this is the ratio of debt service to export receipts. In Latin America, the ratio averages over 50 percent, but in Asia it is only 22 percent. But a credit crunch may be on the way, both from official aid and private banks, finally paving the way for much-talked-about cofinancing.

Also starting up is a novel venture in equity financing by the ADB. By taking shares in budding companies, it hopes to boost private enterprise in developing countries. The bank would have a minority shareholding, giving a stamp of credit worthiness to a firm. Once the company is on its feet, the shares would be sold to nationals in the company's country. Only ventures that are world competitive would be ADB-supported.

Although this would be some risk to ADB's credit rating, it could start badly needed industries. An initial $50 million or less will likely be lent next year, or less than 1 percent of ADB funds.

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