WASHINGTON — If it had happened a year ago, it would have made the Bush Administration extremely nervous.
But now, as Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev prepares for next week's visit to Japan, U.S. officials view the short-term impact of his trip in a more relaxed fashion.
"We're not worrying anymore, because the glow is off Gorbachev, who goes to Japan as the beleaguered leader of a failing nation and a failing economy," says a State Department official.
A senior Bush Administration official agrees. "I think this is going to be an underwhelming visit," he says. "Right now, the Soviet military continues to constrain what Gorbachev can do."
Can it really be that simple? Is the Bush Administration so bursting with self-confidence after the Persian Gulf War that it can accept with equanimity the first trip ever made by a Soviet leader to Japan, one of America's closest allies?
The Soviet Union and Japan are, after all, the United States' biggest potential military rival and its principal economic competitor, respectively. Looked at another way, they are also the world's largest nation and the most prosperous country in Asia, where American economic stakes are huge and growing.
And indeed, Administration officials, policy-makers and analysts admit to a sense of uneasiness about what the Gorbachev visit could mean for the United States in the long term. They worry not so much about an immediate, dramatic breakthrough in Tokyo but rather about the gradual impact over the next several years.
Two U.S. government analysts predicted that over the next year or two, the Gorbachev trip will come to be seen as a "watershed event" starting the process of rapprochement between East Asia's two old rivals--an event with unpredictable consequences for that region and for the American role there.
"The Gorbachev visit is no big deal in and of itself," says Paul Kreisberg, an expert on Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But it's part of a larger process of change. And if successful, it would be seen as the crossing of the Rubicon, in terms of the Soviets no longer being seen as a threat in Japan.
"An extended period of relaxed tensions between the Soviets and Japan would raise questions in Japan over the next five to seven years about security relations between the United States and Japan," Kreisberg adds. "People in Japan could ask, 'Why do we need to have 50,000 Americans sitting on our turf now?' "
Gorbachev will visit Japan April 16-19. According to Japanese media reports, the Soviet leader will meet three times in Tokyo with Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. He also will have an audience with Emperor Akihito.
He is expected to talk with Japanese students, to address both houses of the Diet, Japan's legislature, and to make stops in Kyoto and Osaka. The Soviet leader also reportedly will pay a symbolic visit to Nagasaki, which was destroyed by the second American atomic bomb attack in August, 1945.
During his trip, Gorbachev is expected to begin talks aimed at overcoming the single biggest obstacle to improved relations between Moscow and Tokyo: the return of some or all of the four northern islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said last week that Japan will accept nothing less than Soviet recognition of Tokyo's "sovereignty" over all four islands.
And U.S. analysts say they believe that Japan may eventually get what it wants. "We see signs that Gorbachev is prepared to return all four islands if the price is right," one American analyst says.
He speculates that the Soviet Union might return these islands in stages: two islands relatively quickly, in exchange for a peace treaty formally ending the World War II hostilities between the two countries, and the other two islands later, when the Japanese finish paying the price.
What will the Soviet price tag be for return of the islands?
Over the past few weeks, Japanese media reports have said Kaifu's government is prepared to pay as much as $28 billion for Soviet recognition of Japan's claims to the islands. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo denied this report.
U.S. officials don't believe the reports of a $28-billion deal. "The Japanese will throw some small change their (the Soviets') way at the beginning of the talks," a U.S. analyst says.
One U.S. government analyst said that over the long run, the price Japan will have to pay the Soviets for return of the islands lies somewhere between the $3 billion that South Korea paid for diplomatic recognition by Moscow and the $20 billion that Germany is paying for the former East Germany.
"Maybe it will be $10 billion to $15 billion," the official estimates.
However, U.S. officials believe that to reach any agreement with Japan, Gorbachev will have to overcome strong opposition at home to a giveaway of Soviet territory.