The fire on the Soviet nuclear submarine in the pacific off the Japanese island of Okinawa is a reminder that the traditional transatlantic routes in strategic importance.
Without Gulf oil, industrialized Japan -- the most important Pacific ally of the United States -- could not survive. Hence the American vital interest in ensuring that the oil route from the Gulf remains open and secure, in peace and war.
Apparently the Soviet submarine -- from which about 55 survivors were taken Aug.21 -- was either on passage or patrol at the eastern end of the oil route. It was a liquefied natural gas tanker bound for Japan (albeit from Brunei in the East Indies, not from the Gulf) that first came to the aid of the disabled submarine, powerless and on the surface.
Soviet advantages won in recent years give the Soviet fleet bases or facilities along the entire lenght of this route not available to the Russians even a decade ago. These include the superb natural anchorage at Cam Ranh Bay in vietnam, the once-British base at Aden at the tip of the western side of the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
Beyond these tangible assets, the Soviet Union has increased its overall leverage on the route by its incursion into Afghanistan, which puts Soviet air power much closer both to the source of the oil in Iran and other Gulf states and to the narrow tanker bottleneck at the Strait of Hormuz, where Gulf shipping enters the Indian Ocean.
But both the US and China are alert to these Soviet gains and are trying to counterbalance them.
The chinese are at their most active in Indochina, close to another tanker bottleneck where the oil route eastward comes close to the coast of the Southeast Asian peninsula as it leaves the Indian Ocean and heads northward through the western Pacific to Japan.
In Indochina, the Chinese are locked in a fierce power struggle with the Soviet Union for control of Cambodia. Here there is no direct Soviet presence, but Moscow is operating through its proxy, the communist government in Vietnam. The latter has installed a pro-Vietnamese and pro-Soviet puppet regime in Cambodia, and Vietnamese troops have moved across to the Thai border.
China supports the guerrilla activites of the ousted Cambodian leader Pol Pot and is working to preserve the considerable international recognition the latter still enjoys in the United Nations and elsewhere.
China (like the US) backs Thailand as ot faces the Vietnamese Army on the Cambodian border. China is also doing its best to endian border. China is also doing its best to encourage solidity on the part of the Association of southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the face of Vietnamese expansionism. In Peking's eyes, the Vietnamese are as much Soviet proxies in Asia as the Cubans are in Africa.
Although the chinese earlier this month postponed indefinitely a planned visit of their foreign minister to New Delhi, they have this week made a move suggesting they remain interested in improving their relations with India. They responded Aug. 20 to an Indian request and returned to Indian territory 40 Indian soldiers who earlier this month had lost their way in bad weather in the Himalayas and had crossed the border into China.
Although India is closer to the Soviet Union than it is to either China or the US, the Chinese have a vested interest in reminding India that they are counterweight to Soviet power in south Asia. And with the Russians now on the Khyber Pass, the traditional gateway from their imperial possessions in Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent, the Indians have evey reason not to brush aside that counterweight to Moscow's expanding influence.
Farther west still, Chinese Vice-Premier Ji Pengfei was in Nairobi, Kenya, Aug. 21 conferring with Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi at the beginning of a tour of 10 Indian Ocean and Gulf states.
Mr. Ji's itinerary includes Oman as well as Kenya. These two slates happen already to have signed agreements witht the US whereby the latter gets the use of local base ftacilities for the American Navy and Air Force. A similar agreement reportedly is about to be signed with Somalia -- despite some earlier misgivings about the risk of the US beinf perceived as too closely identified with Smalia's irredentist claim against Soviet-backed ethiophia
This network of US agreements giving US forces toeholds closer to the Gulf and the oil routes out of it is in pursuance of the intention announced in Washington immediately after the Soviet invasion of Aghanistan at the turn of the year: to maintain a permanent naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
It links up with Diego Garcia, the British island in mid-ocean, where agreed facilities for the US Navy and Air Force are being imporoved and enlarged.
Diagonally across the Indian Ocean, in Australia, there has been a development this week directly connected with the strengthening of the allied presence along the oil route from the Gulf. The new Australian defense budget this month showed an 18 percent increase in defense spending. Although a Monitor contributor said this was only a 3 percent increase in real terms, it is still a significant outlay for a country hit by the economic woes affecting much of the industrialized world.
Australia depends on the US for its ultimate defense, under the ANZUS treaty of alliance (which also embraces New zealand). At its inception, this treaty was perceived as establishing a shield to ward off any threat from the north, from the Pacific. In those days, China was seen as a more immediate threat than the Soviet Union.
Today, the Soviet presence in the Indian Ocean has changed perceptions. On the one hand, China is being wooed to buy more in the Australian market. On the other, Australia is taking seriously the potential threat to its maritime routes and long, sparsely populated Indian Ocean coastline from expanding Soviet naval power.
In that context, the naval facilities it offers the US at Cockburn Sound in Western Australia are likely to assume ever greater importance in both the Australian and the American scheme of things.