Washington's pincer movement
To the denizens of the Kremlin, Washington's counterattack on their peace offensive must look rather like an unpredictable pincer movement. On their western flank, President Reagan's deputy is bursting out of vice-presidential obscurity into a headline-catching effort to reassure the European allies of Washington's good intentions as the Geneva arms talks reopen.
On their eastern flank, the United States' low-key secretary of state is taking off on a similar fence-mending trip around American friends and allies in Asia.
And to give the men of the Kremlin something else to think about, below their southern frontiers the 23-year-old Arab-led OPEC oil cartel is showing distinct signs of decay. As the world's largest oil producer, the Soviet Union has been among the bigger beneficiaries of OPEC-engendered price hikes. Conversely, as the oil price slides downward officially or under the counter, the US economy could be the winner of up to $2 billion for every $1-per-barrel decline - a potential tax-cut-equivalent of no mild proportions.
This is the moment, in short, when Washington has an opportunity to regain the initiative in big-power maneuvering.
Recently the new boy on the Kremlin block, Yuri Andropov, has moved fast and skillfully to hold the world's center stage. This past week, however, the news from Moscow has been more about the former KGB boss's shuffling of his mammoth bureaucracy than of his international acrobatics. Mr. Reagan and his men now have their own diplomatic opportunity.
Although it will be Vice-President George Bush who will be walking Europe's red carpets during the coming days, the influence of the other George - George Shultz - will be very much present, even as the secretary of state moves in person between Tokyo, Peking, and Seoul.
It was the delicate internal and external diplomacy of Mr. Shultz that repaired European-American relations fractured by the Siberian pipeline dispute. And it is daily becoming clearer that the ousting of Eugene Rostow from his place at the head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, whether or not it was subtly engineered in the State Department, has resulted in a greatly enlarged role for Mr. Shultz in the Geneva arms control negotiations. The shadow of Shultz in the background of the Bush entourage is likely to be comforting rather than disturbing to most Europeans.
Equally important is the secretary of state's mission to shore up the eastern wing of Washington's Soviet-containment strategy. Specifically, Mr. Shultz wants to make sure that Peking's modest Pisa-like tilt toward the West in general and the United States in particular is not undermined by Soviet blandishments or American insensitivity. He must also hope to encourage the unexpectedly vigorous efforts of Japan's new premier, Yasuhiro Nakasone, to rebuild the rusty foundations of the US-Japan alliance.
This past week has neatly illustrated the relationship between the eastern and western wings of the American system of alliances - and the Kremlin's efforts to play off one alliance wing against the other.
In West Germany just over a week ago, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko restated the Kremlin offer on the Soviets' modern triple-warhead SS-20 missiles: that Moscow would be prepared as part of a Geneva accord to withdraw some of the SS-20s from the European part of the Soviet Union's territory. . . and redeploy them in the eastern reaches of its continent. This is intended, naturally enough , to appeal to West Europeans anxious about what many of them see as a big-power game of nuclear ''chicken'' in Europe.
Equally naturally, such a Soviet proposal has something of a reverse effect in Asia. Neither the Japanese nor the Chinese find the prospect of coming within range of still more such weapons in the least appealing. Already about one-third of the Soviet SS-20 force is pointed pointedly in their direction. A loud squawk of alarm went up from Tokyo.
Mr. Shultz will have to handle, in particular, the almost European-like concern beginning to gather weight in Japan over hardening American policies. In part, this comes in reaction to months of American prodding for a larger Japanese contribution to the Asian lines of defense. It has been given fresh fuel by Prime Minister Nakasone's strong pronouncements on defense during his visit to Washington earlier this month.
Tokyo had earlier agreed to the stationing of nearly 50 American F-16 fighter-bombers in northern Japan. AWACS early-warning radar planes may follow. In this context, the premier's reference to his island nation as an ''unsinkable aircraft carrier'' did not play well in the Japanese equivalent of Peoria. Mr. Shultz will probably have to counter a perception among some Japanese that the price of closer defense ties with the US is to become a more obvious target of Soviet nuclear weaponry.
The Kremlin itself has helped pave Shultz's path into Peking's Great Hall of the People. On Jan. 13 the Soviet news agency, Tass, distributed an article accusing China of increasing its allegedly false claims to Soviet territory and of bargaining in bad faith. Earlier, Mr. Andropov had gone out of his way to dampen any hopes of a Soviet troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; Moscow, he declared, would do ''its internationalist duty to the end.''
With two of the Chinese conditions for normalization with Moscow thereby publicly frustrated (withdrawal from Afghanistan and a border compromise), it is all the more likely that any real China-Soviet thaw remains only the longest of long-term prospects. And the third Chinese condition - a cutoff of Russian support for Vietnam's military occupation of Kampuchea - seems no nearer fulfillment than the two others.
But a residue of Chinese bitterness over the Reagan administration's early pronouncements about Taiwan lingers. The past week's fracas over new US quotas on imports of Chinese textiles is the latest symptom of that residual dismay. Mr. Shultz's years as a labor negotiator will be put to good use in emphasizing instead the two countries' common interests in Soviet containment and economic growth.
And from behind the gray walls of the Kremlin, the Soviet leaders will be watching as the United States tries to patch up the anti-Soviet alliances stretching from west to east around the rim of their empire.