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Next Step : The U.N. is mounting its largest operation ever to virtually run Cambodia until elections next year. For the Asian nation and its refugees, it offers hope after a generation of civil war, brutal dictatorship and invasion. For Japan, hoping to spearhead reconstruction, Cambodia is a diplomatic crucible. The challenge: : Putting Cambodia Together Again : * A Japanese citizen will, in effect, govern Cambodia under the U.N. plan as Tokyo takes bold steps.


TOKYO — In what they call their first postwar test in international diplomacy, Japanese officials are pushing to play the leading role in rebuilding devastated Cambodia.

Far away from the Southeast Asian nation, in the heart of Tokyo's Kasumigaseki government complex, Foreign Ministry bureaucrats pore over studies, plot out aid schemes and dream of leading a nation ripped apart by genocide and war into a new century of peace and prosperity.

As hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees prepare to head home, and U.N. "blue helmets" launch the largest peacekeeping operation in the organization's history, the Japanese say they are focusing on Cambodia's long-term reconstruction.

While Japanese law forbids the country from contributing soldiers to U.N. peacekeeping forces, one Japanese national at the United Nations is slated to become the virtual governor of Cambodia pending free elections next year. Another Japanese heads the effort to return Cambodian refugees. Japan will be assessed at least $250 million as its share of the cost of running the U. N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), and officials here indicate they will actually contribute much more.

Moreover, imitating the Bush Administration's effort to marshall international aid for the former Soviet Union, Japan plans an international conference in June to help rebuild Cambodia.

Officials here say they are weighing projects to rebuild bridges, roads and other infrastructure critical to Cambodia's economic future. They have also targeted agriculture, energy and health care as priority areas for assistance.

"This is really the first time for the Japanese to take such initiatives," said Akio Miyajima, a deputy director in the Foreign Ministry's Asian affairs bureau. "Everyone agrees that Cambodia is a test case for Japanese diplomacy."

In part, the Cambodian initiatives are meant to combat the image of Japan as an economic giant but a diplomatic midget. The country is still smarting from a volley of international criticism that its support of allied efforts in last year's Persian Gulf War was too little, too late. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, Japanese officials also see room to chart a more independent foreign policy course. Until now, it has served more as a diplomatic proxy in Asia, destined to "obey U.S. demands," as one Foreign Ministry official put it.

Indeed, in a sharp departure from the past, officials are making it clear that they will no longer be satisfied with merely an economic role in global affairs.

When the Japanese ambassador was shut out of recent political talks in Phnom Penh, for instance, Foreign Ministry spokesman Masamichi Hanabusa protested and warned that if Japan was to maintain its "strong support" of Cambodia, such behavior would have to end.

Officials here say a turning point in their approach occurred two years ago when the long-running Cambodian peace talks appeared stalled and Japan unexpectedly invited the warring parties to a meeting that helped break the diplomatic logjam.

"We considered that move bold, brave and risky--quite atypical of Japanese diplomacy," Miyajima said. "But it turned out to be a success and made us think that maybe we could do something creative in this region."

There are several reasons that Cambodia emerged as the best candidate for showcasing Japan's postwar diplomacy, officials say. The Middle East and Eastern Europe were considered too complicated, Africa and Latin America too emotionally distant. China, South Korea and most of the rest of Asia still harbor distrust borne of bitter war memories.

In contrast, relations with Cambodia have been comparatively good. Although Japanese forces occupied the nation during World War II, some Cambodians also credited them with helping throw off French colonial rule. Cambodia was one of the first nations to relinquish claims to wartime reparations from Japan, a gesture that drew an official resolution of appreciation from the Japanese Diet, said Hiroshi Hashimoto, deputy director general in the Foreign Ministry's economic cooperation bureau.

"Cambodia is a small country, but it helped us rejoin international society," Hashimoto said.

The country also lies in the volatile buffer zone between the two regional powers of Vietnam and Thailand. A weak Cambodia at the mercy of either country could be destabilizing and jeopardize Japanese interests, officials say.

Aiding Japan's Cambodian initiatives have been the appointment of Japanese nationals to key U.N. posts. Until elections next year, the nation's de facto governor will be Yasushi Akashi, a U.N. undersecretary general who was appointed in January as special representative on Cambodia. Sadako Ogata is the U.N.'s high commissioner for refugees.

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