Bonn — In a holding action set against breakdown in superpower detente, the middle-size powers are trying to keep their own East-West dialogues alive. West and East Germany -- as the May 8 Belgrade meeting between Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and party and state chief Erich Honecker symbolized -- are at the center of the salvage operation.
It is a delicate operation. Detente between the two German states developed in the 1970s only on the foundation of US- Soviet detente. And both superpowers are now suspicious that their German partners may strive to maintain their own detente at the cost of solidarity with their respective alliances.
Thus, as nearly as Westerners can discern, the Kremlin forbade the West-East German summit scheduled for earlier this year; at East German initiative the summit was postponed indefinitely. And despite US concurrence in the West German principle that Eastern European nations should not be penalized for Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, President Carter keeps attacking any notion of "business as usual" in East-West intercourse.
Messrs. Schmidt and Honecker are therefore moving cautiously in extending their own dialogue. Although they met for more than an hour while they were in Belgrade on the occasion of Josip Broz Tito's funeral, their spokesmen have stressed that that meeting is no substitute for the still hoped- for summit.
Both sides have downplayed this first meeting between the two German leaders since the 1975 Helsinki conference as a general conversation with no concrete results. East German newspapers have carefully buried the meeting on page two along with all of Mr. Honecker's visits with other dignitaries, while giving page-one pride of place to Mr. Honecker's Belgrade meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
Yet detente has been so fruitful to East Germany economically and to West Germany in human terms that both sides are determined to preserve as much of it as they can. They are stressing their common commitment to peace and going ahead with modest cooperation like the 500 million deutsche mark ($280 million) April agreement to improve West Berlin's road, rail, and canal links with West Germany across East Germany. Their trade for the first quarter of 1980, it has just been announced, reached a record 2.7 billion deutsche marks.
For the time being West Germany is prudently refraining from financing any grander construction projects in East Germany that would bolster West Berlin-West German ties or make travel and communications easier for the 8 million West Germans who visit East German relatives and friends every year. But working-level talks on future environmental and other cooperation continue. And so far the Soviet Union has not increased its carrot-and-stick attempts to influence West German policy to the point of blocking traffic between West Germany and West Berlin.
In its efforts to salvage what it can of detente -- as well as to help shore up the Mideast against the new Soviet threat -- West Germany has also stepped up its consultations with middle-power allies and third-world countries.
Policy coordination between the nine European Community (EC) members has intensified following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and Japan finally has begun its own coordination with Western Europe. Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira paid a state visit to West Germany on May 9 and 10, and Japan has adhered to the EC economic sanctions on Iran.
At Marshal Tito's funeral Mr. Schmidt also conferred not only with Polish leader Edward Gierek, but also with Britain's Margaret Thatcher, India's Indira Gandhi, Pakistan's General Zia ul-Haq, US Vice-President Walter Mondale, Turkey's Suleyman Demirel, and Algeria's Bendjedid Chadli.