When Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze arrives in Tokyo on Thursday, he will receive a warm welcome, but little else. Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has hailed the visit as a "fruitful beginning" in Soviet-Japanese relations under Mikhail S. Gorbachev. But recent conversations with senior officials in Tokyo suggest that, diplomatic niceties notwithstanding, the Nakasone government does not anticipate major progress with the Kremlin.
The Japanese are pleased that after a 10-year interval a Soviet foreign minister is coming to their capital. And they are happy that this minister is Shevardnadze rather than his predecessor. Andrei A. Gromyko, while a man of formidable intellect, a photographic memory and tremendous foreign-affairs experience, suffered from excessive longevity on the job. His was a world of the past in which only the United States and the Soviet Union mattered in the great-power equation. Germany and Japan, as defeated and occupied nations, were expected to know their place. It is no wonder that the increasingly self-confident Japanese found him hard to swallow. Shevardnadze is considered nicer to deal with. Where Gromyko would manage to say "yes" with a grimace on his face, the new affable minister even says "no" with a disarming smile.
Shevardnadze's talks in Tokyo will test how far one can go on smiles alone. On the principal sticking point in Soviet-Japanese relations, the issue of the Northern Territories, the Kremlin's position remains unchanged: The four islands should remain an integral part of the Soviet Union.
Thirty years ago, when Soviet-Japanese diplomatic ties were reestablished, Gromyko, then the deputy foreign minister, promised to address the problem in the context of negotiating a peace treaty. But the treaty was never signed, and Moscow soon changed its tune. With the arrogance of a superior power, the Soviets adopted the stand that no territorial problem existed, since there were no Soviet claims to Japan. The Japanese grievances presumably were considered irrelevant and deserving of nothing but contempt.
There is no evidence that this stand has been altered under Gorbachev. Few observers anticipate any new meaningful flexibility on Shevardnadze's part. If anything, the Politburo seems to be attaching new geopolitical significance to the islands. The Soviet garrison there has been expanded to a full division, and old aircraft have been replaced with more modern MIG-23 fighters and MI-24 helicopter gun-ships (the same used with deadly effectiveness against rebels in Afghanistan and Nicaragua). The growth of the Soviet Pacific fleet into a major ocean-going force increases the strategic value of the islands that control access to the Sea of Okhotsk.
In the absence of any genuine movement on the Northern Territories dispute, the Japanese government is not prepared to play ball with the Kremlin. And Nakasone is under no real domestic pressure to win Soviet favor. The business community has lost a lot of its former enthusiasm for a major expansion in trade with the Soviets. The growing sophistication of the Japanese economy reduces the interest in Soviet raw materials. The world oil glut also is a factor. There is a consensus that major investment in the Siberian development is not feasible without government guarantees, which are not about to come.
Nor is there much pressure from opposition parties. There is unanimity across the Japanese political spectrum, including the Communists, that the Northern Territories should be returned. The pacifist sentiment of a decade ago has largely faded away. Opinion polls indicate a renewed approval of alliance with the United States.
The Shevardnadze visit is likely to result in some improvement of bilateral cooperation. Yet a deployment of 135 SS-20 missiles and approximately 85 TU-22M Backfire bombers in the eastern Soviet Union is not taken lightly by the Nakasone government. And there is an appreciation that a rapid economic development of Siberia may bring new danger to Japan. As the importance of the region grows economically, so does Moscow's temptation to protect it with an intimidating military power.
Diplomacy can hardly resolve this conflict of interest. But a more imaginative and sensitive Soviet approach to Japan, even while conducting essentially the same policy, can make a difference.
A leading member of the Diet from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party talked about his "nightmare," in which Gorbachev, without yielding anything of substance, charms some sectors in Japan into complacency. That would not be enough to change the course of Japanese foreign policy, but might prove sufficient to create some domestic discord and tension with the United States. His concern is a reminder that an adversary's more skillful diplomacy is not always cause for jubilation.