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Japan faces tricky hurdle in Asian games

JAPAN is desperately trying to extract itself from a three-cornered diplomatic and sporting row with China and Taiwan. China says it will boycott the Asian games in Japan next month unless the President of Taiwan is banned from the opening ceremony. But Taiwan has threatened to pull out if Japan gives in to Peking.

Japan's main priority is not to antagonise China. Apart from larger political and strategic considerations, a boycott by China's world-class athletes would make the tournament, to be held in Hiroshima, almost meaningless.

With China apparently intent on extending regional power politics into the world of sport, Japan has little room for manoeuvre. The non-confrontational Japanese do not relish a rerun of the Cold War Olympic boycotts in Moscow and Los Angeles.

The problem began when Ahmad Al-Fahad, the Kuwaiti President of the Olympic Council of Asia, invited President Lee Teng Hui of Taiwan, to the games, along with other regional leaders. The Chinese, who ritually object to anything that appears to give Taiwan status approaching nationhood, protested.

'We will have to take a close look at the situation, but it seems difficult,' Tomiichi Murayama, the Japanese Prime Minister, flustered. 'We also have to take into account our previous agreements with China,' he said, and recalled that Japan had agreed to the One China policy when it opened diplomatic relations with Peking in 1972. But the Taiwanese were furious that Japan seemed on the verge of caving in to China. 'Taiwan will respond to poison with poison,' Chang Feng Shu, the head of Taiwan's Olympic Committee said. 'We will boycott the Hiroshima games (if President Lee Teng Hui is prevented from attending).'

China's political self-confidence has been growing apace with its economic boom and expanding military clout. But despite signs that China is flexing its muscles as it extends its influence, Japan has been unwilling to face China down. Weighed down by its cultural debt to China, its history of wartime aggression and its fear of a possible flood of Chinese refugees should China's economy falter, Japan has consistently attempted to keep relations with China sweet and support its economic reform programme.