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DHAKA — Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori will undertake a visit to South Asia starting Sunday. His brief itinerary will take him to three capitals in the region — Dhaka, New Delhi and Islamabad.

In New Delhi and Islamabad, the nuclear-arms stance of the two countries and the flash point of Kashmir will doubtless dominate the agenda.

Economic sanctions and international diplomatic pressures following the explosion of nuclear devices by both India and Pakistan in 1998 have not persuaded either country to subscribe to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

India’s position, in essence, is that it is not opposed in principle to the two agreements, but that it resents the pressure of the official nuclear club (France, China, Russia, Britain and the United States), when they themselves are dragging their feet in reducing stockpiles of nuclear warheads and renouncing nuclear arms.

Pakistan refuses to undertake any unilateral action, saying that it will follow suit if India accepts the NPT or the CTBT.

The long-standing dispute over Kashmir hangs like a dark cloud over all initiatives designed to boost regional economic and political cooperation in South Asia. An abortive attempt by Pakistan last autumn to alter the status quo (i.e., two-thirds of the disputed territory controlled by India and one-third by Pakistan) led to heavy loss of life and political damage on both sides. Pakistani military authorities had tried to send a large number of infiltrators consisting of irregular fighters beyond the Line of Control but had to withdraw them when a bloody stalemate ensued. There are some very tentative signs now of a softening of position and willingness to hear new ideas by the current regimes on both sides.

Japan needs to take a nuanced approach on both of these major issues, demonstrating an understanding of the constraints on both sides, but at the same time nudging the adversaries toward the path of peace and reconciliation in the interests of the people of India and Pakistan and of the whole region. It should distance itself somewhat from what is seen in South Asia as proselytizing for the NPT and the CTBT by the U.S. and other Western powers. Japan needs to both seek and contribute to ideas for dealing with the clash between perception and reality with regard to the official nuclear club’s position.

The looming presence of China as an emerging economic and military megapower extends from East Asia to South Asia. There are signs of a thaw in the latent hostility that has prevailed between China and India since the two countries fought a border war in 1962. The presidents of both countries have recently exchanged state visits. President Vladimir Putin of Russia has also visited Beijing and New Delhi recently. An alignment on global issues by these important Asian powers could open up the possibility of a more balanced dialogue in today’s unipolar world. Japan, straddling the world of advanced industrial powers and the “developing” continent of Asia, should seek to keep this dialogue constructive and prevent it from sliding toward a replay of Cold-War-era relationships.

The key agenda for Mori in Bangladesh will be development cooperation. Japan has, in recent years, been the largest single provider of aid to Bangladesh. Besides bilateral yen soft loans, Japan has also been assisting in the social sector, especially in the campaigns to eradicate polio and in efforts to improve the health of children and mothers through grants to UNICEF from the Child Health Grant Aid budget.

Since Japan is Bangladesh’s principal bilateral development partner, the prime minister should consider proposing the development of an assistance package that would address Bangladesh’s needs as well as the issues raised about Japanese development aid. The package could include:

* assistance in planning and implementing key elements of a national plan for information-technology development, including its extensive use in education;

* technical and financial support for improving and expanding elementary education; and

* development of a comprehensive plan for combating environmental hazards, including the contamination of drinking water by arsenic, which affects as many as a quarter of the people of Bangladesh.

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