TOKYO - The heads of government meeting of the Group of Seven leading powers that starts this Friday in Okinawa gives Japan a forum to show that it is ready to play a greater role in global problem-solving. A test will be whether it uses the summit to address reform in China and Russia's war in Chechnya.
Neither topic will be easy, but progress could lay the groundwork for future efforts. It could also demonstrate Japan's willingness to take on tough questions involving promotion of democracy and human rights.
Japan has been more visibly active recently in its foreign diplomacy. Last year it exerted high-level pressure on the Indonesian government during the East Timor crisis. It has urged dialogue between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, and used its aid policy to press the Sri Lankan government to end abuses in the conflict with Tamil minority guerrillas.
But is Tokyo willing to use its diplomatic and economic clout with some of its most important neighbors and trading partners to promote broader international principles?
Japan is committed to encouraging greater economic openness and reform in China. It has strongly supported Beijing's entry into the World Trade Organization. But it has been reluctant to openly criticize Beijing on its human rights record, despite the marked deterioration in conditions in China. A bilateral human rights dialogue between Japan and China under way since 1997 has yet to have tangible results.
At the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in April, Japan refused to co-sponsor a mildly worded resolution on China put forward by the United States, although it did vote against a ''no action'' measure by Beijing to keep the resolution off the agenda. Once again, China escaped international condemnation.
There is an urgent need for a multilateral approach to bring China's legal system and human rights practices into conformity with United Nations standards. The Chinese Communist Party's efforts to protect its monopoly on power continue to limit reforms and are a recipe for future political instability.
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and President Bill Clinton should use the opportunity of the Okinawa meeting to call on Beijing to take final action on two important UN human rights treaties China has signed but not yet ratified. The Group of Seven could also offer direct assistance to help reform China's labor laws, dismantle its ''re-education through labor'' system and build a modern, transparent legal system.
On the issue of Russia's abuses in Chechnya, the Okinawa meeting provides a particularly useful forum, with President Vladimir Putin participating in the political discussions. Japan is clearly interested in supporting reform in Russia. It has given emergency assistance to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross to assist displaced persons fleeing Chechnya.
It should go further, urging Mr. Putin to fully comply with the recommendations of the UN Commission on Human Rights, and ensuring that this appeal is included in the Okinawa final statement.
The United Nations called on Moscow to carry out independent investigations and prosecutions in connection with atrocities committed in Chechnya, and allow unhindered access to Chechnya by UN officials.
The Okinawa meeting could give Japan a real boost in its international profile as a major partner shaping Group of Seven policy.
Mike Jendrzejczyk is Washington Director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.