Seldom in history has a new figure emerged on the world stage so fast and started operating so intelligently so early. Clearly Yuri Vladimirovich Andropov will be a formidable opponent for the West.
He got himself acknowledged as the new leader of the Soviet power system within 25 hours of the announcement of his predecessor's passing. Three days later he played important power politics just by extra handshakes and extra attention to one particular person coming down the receiving line in St. George's Hall in the Kremlin immediately after the burial of Leonid Brezhnev.
While this has not been another ''10 days that shook the world,'' it has been a 10 days of surprises and interesting hints of changes to come.
The man who was held longest in the receiving line was the foreign minister of Moscow's biggest and by far most important neighbor, China. The biggest possible change in the power balance would be for China to slip out of the Western orbit and cast its weight back on the side of the Soviets.
Mr. Andropov did not bring China back into the Soviet orbit just by extra handshakes and by inviting Huang Hua to stay over another two days for talks with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. But Mr. Huang was invited to stay over and did have a much-advertised 90-minute session with Mr. Gromyko on Tuesday of this week, which was day No. 5 in the reign of Yuri Andropov.
Inevitably every foreign office the world around took careful note of this special attention bestowed by the new head man at the Kremlin on the foreign minister of China. Subsequent Japanese reports from Moscow quoted a member of the Soviet Central Committee as saying that Moscow and Peking ''might promise each other a reduction of military forces in border areas'' - one of China's prerequisites for normalizing relations.
Noted too was the further fact that special attention was accorded during the Brezhnev funeral days not only to China, but also to all the other important neighbors of the Soviet Union. On the day of the funeral, after the big reception, Mr. Andropov went to an inner small reception room and there gave special 30-minute audiences to the top delegates of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan , and West Germany.
And, perhaps not coincidentally, on the previous day the military government of Poland had released Polish worker hero Lech Walesa back to his home and family. Polish Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, in Moscow on the funeral day, told members of the Greek delegation that he expected to lift martial law in Poland within two months.
The lifting of martial law in Poland would be an enormous relief to the West Germans. Any reduction of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan would be an equal relief to Pakistan, India, and China. If Mr. Andropov would actually move toward less oppressive treatment of Poland, military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and reduced border tensions with China, he could rescue the Soviet Union from its present condition of near-isolation in the world.
And, if he should move in those directions, he would also undermine much of the foundation for the foreign policies of President Ronald Reagan in Washington , who spent the days of the Brezhnev funeral in (1) not going to the funeral, (2 ) preaching on three occasions the need for more American weapons, and (3) announcing an agreement with his allies on future sanctions against the Soviets which his French ally promptly denied. His other important allies, Britain, West Germany, and Italy, kept an embarrassed silence.
On the propaganda scoreboard the first week of the reign of Yuri Andropov was a notable success.
During those days President Reagan in Washington expressed formal condolences over the passing of Leonid Brezhnev, while saying he would ''continue working to improve our relationship with the Soviet Union.''
Mr. Andropov did not neglect his own military constituents. It is believed in embassy circles in Moscow that the Soviet armed services supported his candidacy for the succession and hence expect from him continuation of large military budgets. In his accession speech he praised ''the invincible might of the Soviet armed forces.''
But on balance Mr. Andropov was more successful than Mr. Reagan in appearing to want an improvement in East-West relations and an easing of tensions between Moscow and Washington.
Nothing that happened during the days of the Brezhnev funeral has shaken the world. Things said and done are only gestures, hints, signals - which may or may not be implemented by future action. We on the outside do not know that there will be an actual change in Soviet foreign policy toward a new policy of being a good neighbor rather than an oppressive and expanding empire.
Ten days ago Yuri Andropov was just another member of the Politburo in Moscow. He was known to be a candidate for the succession. But the general expectation among the experts was that there would be a struggle succession before the new leader in the Kremlin could be identified.
Well. Leonid Brezhnev died on Nov. 10. His passing was announced at 11 a.m. (Moscow time) on Nov. 11. At noon of the next day Mr. Andropov addressed the entire membership of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Immediately afterward he was elected, unanimously of course, to be the new general secretary of the party.
During the following days of the lying-in-state, the funeral, the receptions, and the handling of the various guests at the event - there was no question about who was in charge. Mr. Andropov was at the head of the line. All paid deference to him. He appeared to be just as much in charge of events as Mr. Brezhnev had been. Thus, for the first time since the communist revolution, the Soviets managed a quick, clear, and decisive succession. If there was a struggle behind the scenes, it was certainly settled quickly and decisively.
Mr. Andropov ran the show from the moment the passing of Mr. Brezhnev became official. He proceeded to try to reassure all of the important neighbors about the future behavior of the Soviet Union under his leadership.
President Reagan in Washington, meanwhile, had announced the ending of his pipeline sanctions venture, but in such a manner that he got no thanks from the Soviets, an angry denial from France, and bad feelings in other allied capitals. Seldom has a foreign policy venture been so maladroitly managed.