FROSTY ties between Moscow and Tokyo resulting from a territorial dispute have pushed Japan to divert its interest in the former Soviet Union away from the resource-rich Siberian Far East.
Instead, Japan plans a major push to step up aid, trade, and investment with the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. Even though these former Soviet republics are largely Muslim, Tokyo officials say racial similarity between Japanese and the people of Central Asia is a main reason to provide economic help.
On a recent trip to Central Asia, Japanese Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe found it difficult to tell the difference between Japanese and the local people, a top aide says. In addition, that region lies at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, and contains petroleum deposits that Japan could help tap, the aide continues.
This new Japanese focus comes partly as a result of Tokyo playing host today and tomorrow to the third international conference on economic aid to 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics (the Baltic republics are not included).
The Tokyo meeting follows conferences in Washington last January and in Lisbon in May. This time, however, far more countries will be present - perhaps as many as 70. Many of the new donor nations are in Asia.
The primary focus in Tokyo is to have donor countries make new pledges for aid, mainly to Russia. In addition, some of the 12 states will have a "consultative group" of donors set up under World Bank guidance to monitor aid needs. The nations most likely to be given such a donor group are Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
But to set up such groups, Japan has had to convince other developed nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to list the republics as developing nations.
Russia has resisted this label. "The Russians are a very proud people. They do not want to be seen as any other developing country," the Japanese Foreign Ministry official says.
By aiding the five states on Russia's southern border, Japan hopes to gain several strategic advantages: deflecting pressure to aid Moscow, stabilizing the Middle East by helping nearby Muslims, and helping those states reduce their dependency on Russia.
Japan has been under some pressure from France and Germany to increase aid and investment in Russia, despite Tokyo's insistence that it first be given back four northern islands controlled by Moscow since 1945.
Japan-Russia relations cooled in September when Russian President Boris Yeltsin abruptly canceled a trip to Japan. Nonetheless, Japan plans to increase humanitarian aid to Russia this year. The aid, labeled with the Japanese flag, will go mainly to the Far East, where it might sway public opinion in favor of Japan's claim on the disputed islands.
The Far East region will be worse off this winter in food and medicine than in the past two years, based on surveys of such needs, Japanese officials say.