GERMANY once again is seeking to become a major international player in the Far East after more than 75 years of relative inactivity in the region.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl is inaugurating Germany's new Asia policy with a week-long visit to China that began Monday. The policy in general, and the trip in particular, are driven by Bonn's desire to expand markets for its export-oriented economy, which remains mired in a stubborn recession. China, in contrast, has the world's fastest growing economy, expanding at an estimated 13 percent this year. It is looking for international investment to fuel further development.
The Asia initiative is confirmation that Germany is not counting entirely on traditional political and economic alliances, especially the European Union, to generate an economic revival, some experts here say. Others say the expansion of ties with the Far East is a natural outgrowth of Germany's reunification in 1990.
``A new orientation of Germany's policy towards Asia is overdue,'' said an editorial in the centrist General Anzeiger newspaper. ``The concentration on progress regarding European integration and the emphasis on Trans-Atlantic relations with the United States have resulted in the neglect of the continent with giant economic potential for far too long.''
There is also domestic political consideration behind Mr. Kohl's Far East foray. The German recession has greatly eroded popular support for Kohl's government, and with parliamentary elections next October, the chancellor is hoping the Asia initiative will bolster his Christian Democratic Union's chances of winning.
Kohl is making it clear to his Chinese hosts that Germany is seeking a major economic role in Asia. Accompanying the chancellor are 40 top executives of major German companies - including Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz, and Siemens AG.
For its part, China is anxious to shed the stigma caused by the 1989 crackdown against democracy, and is making sure Kohl's initiative does not go unrewarded. During talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing, Kohl signed 18 contracts worth more than $2 billion, including a $415 million deal under which German companies Siemens and AEG will build a subway in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. Kohl was to travel to Shanghai yesterday and then go to Guangzhou before leaving.
The timing of Kohl's China visit is fortuitous for Germany because it precedes Friday and Saturday's planned gathering in Seattle of the 15 members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group, which includes the United States, Japan, and China. The Pacific Rim summit could push the Clinton administration to realign US policy more toward Asia.
Thus, by getting its foot firmly in the door in the Far East, Germany will be in a better position to avoid being locked out of future economic opportunities by potential US efforts to form a Pacific trade bloc.
The jockeying over Asian markets is reminiscent of the Open Door era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Britain, France, and Germany vied with the US for Far Eastern economic influence, particularly in China.
During the Open Door era, in which China lacked a cohesive government, Germany established a sphere of influence in Qingdao on the Laodung Peninsula, about 300 miles southeast of Beijing. Defeat in World War I, however, resulted in Germany's loss of its China possessions. And for the next seven decades Germany's presence in Asia remained minimal, due in large part to defeat in World War II, followed by partition. Nevertheless, a few German companies, such as VW, in recent years have established successful joint ventures in China.