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The Soviets' new Japan card

THE visit to Tokyo this week by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze is the first by a Russian foreign minister in nine years, during which Soviet-Japanese relations have gone from cool to frigid. This ``peaceful offensive'' requires new thinking and responses by Americans who have taken for granted ham-handed Russian diplomacy in the region. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has begun to breathe new life and vigor into Soviet foreign policy. He has given it a new style that could best be called socialist diplomacy with a human faade. Frowning, shoe-banging, and vituperation are out; smiles, handshakes, and Western-style press briefings are in.

Without any real investment in the form of concessions, the Soviets have been able to reap substantial returns. This approach came of age in Western Europe, where the Russians were able to complicate US nuclear deployments by appealing to popular sentiment and casting themselves as patient peacemakers. Next, the Soviets turned east, toward China. While the Chinese stated there could be no progress without Soviet concessions on Afghanistan, Cambodia, and the tense Sino-Soviet border, no such changes have occurred. Yet relations have continued to warm, as shown by last month's announcement that the Soviet and Chinese foreign ministers will exchange visits next year.

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The next real opportunity for Soviet policy is to turn east once again to Japan. The area holds special promise, precisely because Soviet postwar policy toward Japan has been so resoundingly unsuccessful.

This era began with the Russians' last-minute entry into the Pacific war against Japan and their occupation of four small islands between Japan's northernmost main island, Hokkaido, and Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. As a result of the dispute over the possession of these islands, a Russo-Japanese peace treaty ending World War II has yet to be signed. The Japanese hold that to normalize relations, the Soviets must withdraw from Japan's ``Northern Territories.'' The Soviets blandly reply that the islands are theirs under the Yalta and Potsdam agreements and maintain there is nothing to discuss.

During the early 1970s, the Soviets appeared to be on the verge of improving their position throughout Northeast Asia. American power was in decline after Vietnam and Watergate. China was too preoccupied with its Cultural Revolution to be a serious rival. And resource-poor Japan was moving toward warmer ties with the USSR as it became increasingly involved in the economic development of Siberia.

In this environment, the Soviets hoped to weaken the Japanese-US relationship and isolate Japan from China. They sought to conclude a peace treaty, enlist the Japanese as full-fledged partners in Siberian development, and block any move toward Japanese rearmament.

Today these goals are further away than ever, and the Soviets have nobody but themselves to blame. Because of their adamant refusal to discuss the territorial issue, no peace treaty has been negotiated. The Soviets' clumsy efforts to translate their burgeoning military power in Asia into usable political influence backfired.

In response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the militarization of the Northern Territories, the Japanese shelved their plans for economic cooperation with the USSR and now look to China instead.

Rather than becoming isolated and neutral, the Japanese undertook a more activist foreign policy accompanied by an accelerated defense program, including closer military cooperation with the US. Where US pleas for greater burden-sharing had failed, the Soviet military buildup in Asia succeeded in convincing a pacifist Japanese public of the need for greater defense efforts.

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The Soviets also have potent domestic reasons to seek better relations with Japan. Mr. Gorbachev has staked his credibility on getting the economy moving again. This strategy depends heavily on access to capital, managerial expertise, and specialized technology, all of which Japan has in abundance and can provide at a lower political and economic cost than the Western nations.

Events of the last few months underscore the Soviets' belated acknowledgment of Japan's potential importance. In early September Gorbachev sent a personal letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. He appealed for the two countries to find a ``common language'' to discuss their problems and urged greater contacts. Later that month, the two countries' foreign ministers announced at the UN the resumption of regular consultations, starting with Mr. Shevardnadze's Tokyo visit this week. Mr. Nakasone wrote back to Gorbachev, urging renewed talks on a peace treaty, stating that he might go to Moscow if all went well at the Geneva summit, and urging Shevardnadze's visit. Nakasone, who is seen by much of the Japanese public as a ``hawk,'' then said Japan would take a ``flexible attitude'' toward negotiations with Moscow and seek progress in nonpolitical areas. The Soviets responded enthusiastically.

During his visit, Shevardnadze has tried to further movement in this direction. His real goal was more important than merely the signing of agreements on trade settlements and taxation. It was to try to decouple political and economic factors in Soviet-Japan relations. He politely urged the Japanese to postpone discussion of issues where they know they disagree. The other major thrust of his visit was to discourage Japanese involvement in President Reagan's ``star wars'' project.

What is clear is that both sides are trying to move toward a kind of constructive engagement with the other. The question is why the Japanese should feel it is in their interests to engage the Russians when they are sitting in the catbird seat. After all, they hold most of the carrots to offer, while the Soviets have mostly unusable sticks.

The first answer is that after the Geneva summit, an increase in ties is now possible. The improved climate between the superpowers gives the Japanese more flexibility to pursue their own foreign policy interests. One of these is economic. But more important is Japan's need for increased dialogue with its large and powerful neighbor to reduce the possibility of conflict in the region. Better relations, it is hoped, will help to avoid incidents like the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 7 two years ago with the loss of 22 Japanese lives. Finally, Japan is strengthening its relations to assert itself in world affairs and gain some leverage between the superpowers.

US ambivalence toward improved Soviet-Japanese relations is to be expected, even though American policymakers have long pushed Japan to seek a political position in the world commensurate with its economic strength. We can take some comfort that there is a natural chain latch that will keep this opening from going too far. After a certain point, the Japanese will insist on entering into serious discussions about the Northern Territories and other issues that will require changes in the substance, and not just the style, of Soviet foreign policy.

At the same time, the US can no longer assume blind Japanese acceptance of American global leadership. Nor can we count on the Russians to keep bungling and kicking the ball into our goal in Northeast Asia.

As Soviet-Japanese ties develop, it will be more important than ever that the US and Japan respond by seeking closer ties. We should also realize that ``Japan-bashing'' on economic issues will not be without political cost to our alliance. And we should attempt to see the potential benefits that come from this change, the most immediate of which may be the heightened realization of the importance of the US-Japan partnership.

Timothy J. C. O'Shea and David G. Timberman develop programs of research and public education on contemporary Asian affairs at the Asia Society in New York.

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