The shooting down of the South Korean 747 airliner has focused attention on the North Pacific. It is an area where four major nations have vital interests, but no regional arms control measures have been negotiated.
It is ironic that the major fighting since 1945 has taken place in Asia, but the major effort to control arms has concerned Europe. The Pacific has played a vital part in the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), but little has been done to bring this to an end.
The reason why special attention has been given to Europe is easy to understand. There, the United States and the Soviet Union and their allies confront each other directly. It is the continent with the highest concentration of nuclear warheads, and European cities are certain to be major targets in the event of nuclear war.
Yet there has been no fighting in Europe since 1945. By contrast, a civil war engulfed China, and there have been international wars in Korea and Vietnam. These were limited to specific geographic areas, but troops from non-Asian nations were drawn into Korea and Vietnam.
The only time nuclear weapons have been used in combat was in Japan at the end of World War II. Since then, test explosions have been set off on islands in the Pacific, in China, and in Australia, and ICBMs have been flight tested into the Pacific Ocean. All five nations with nuclear weapons have been involved, and as long as they are interested in such tests, they are not likely to advocate arms control measures for the region.
Relations between the four major North Pacific nations are currently uneasy. There are issues of national security, including territorial disputes, between the Soviet Union and both China and Japan, and Soviet-American relations are at their lowest ebb for many years. Washington has serious economic disagreements with Japan, and relations between the US and China have been strained because of the Reagan administration's policy toward Taiwan. Only Japan and China seem to be getting on reasonably well.
Outside the United Nations, there is no place where these four nations meet. There is no meeting comparable to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). The CSCE Final Act sets out principles for cooperation, and the review conferences give the signatories an opportunity to discuss their achievements and their differences.
Nor is there a Pacific equivalent of the negotiations on mutual force reductions in Europe, which are taking place in Vienna. They have been going on for a decade with no agreement. But they have provided a forum for the two alliances, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Warsaw Pact, to exchange information on force levels and proposals to reduce them.
The European experience may provide an important example. As a first step, the Pacific nations might consider the possibility of confidence-building measures along the lines of those agreed to in the CSCE. They provide for such things as the notification of troop movements and military exercises - and for invitations to foreign observers to attend maneuvers.
For the Pacific, these would have to cover naval as well as army operations, and it would be desirable to include the air forces as well. To be effective, they should be obligatory, verifiable, and militarily significant.
This may not be a pipe dream. Leonid Brezhnev spoke of confidence-building measures for the Far East in an address to the Communist Party Congress in February 1981. He said they ''could not only defuse the situation locally, but also make a very useful contribution to strengthening the foundations of universal peace.''
Of course, the Pacific would benefit from the general arms control measures currently under negotiation. Among them are the comprehensive ban on nuclear tests, the prohibition of chemical warfare, the treaty to ban weapons from outer space, and the proposal to ban flight tests of new strategic delivery vehicles.
Specific steps applicable to the region would also be helpful. As in Europe, superpowers should be looking for ways to limit arms deployment in the North Pacific.
A possible approach might cover Alaska and Kamchatka, two areas that figured so prominently in the flight of KAL 7. An agreement to control military activities has an obvious appeal because the two areas seem so similar geographically. However, it would not be easy to negotiate because both contain important bases and installations. An agreement would involve parallel, if not identical, sacrifices by each country.
That, too, may look like a pipe dream. But the idea has come up in private conversation in the Soviet Union.