Moscow — ``Our relations have been in the refrigerator. We are taking them out.'' That's how Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Kapitsa explains the rationale behind this week's visit to Japan by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.
The visit, the first by a Soviet foreign minister in nearly 10 years, is but one benchmark in an effort by the Soviets to improve their standing in Asia.
``Asia is a really important area to them. And it's also a place where many of the chips are stacked against them,'' says one Western diplomat.
Estranged from its giant communist neighbor, China, at odds with Japan over territorial disputes, and in hot water with many other Asian nations over its involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the Soviet Union has a lot of fence-mending to do in the region.
And Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has apparently set about to do just that.
The naming of Mr. Shevardnadze as foreign minister in place of Andrei Gromyko last July set the stage for the reconciliation process with Japan. Mr. Gromyko had refused to visit Japan for the past decade, choosing not to face the thorny issue of the ``northern terrorities.'' These are a group of islands in the Japanese archipelago -- Shikotan, Kunashiri, Etorofu, and the Habomai cluster -- that Moscow seized at the end of World War II.
Although they maintain full diplomatic relations, the Soviet Union and Japan never signed a peace treaty after World War II, and the territorial dispute is the main obstacle to concluding one. In 1956, Moscow indicated that two of the islands would be restored to Japan when a peace treaty was signed. Since then, Moscow has altered its stance and now claims there is no question to be resolved concerning the islands: they are Soviet territory.
For the Japanese, the issue is both emotional and strategic. The Soviets prevent Japanese citizens from visiting the graves of ancestors buried on the islands, just a few miles from the main Japanese island of Hokkaido. The Soviets have also established military bases on the disputed islands.
To resolve the territorial dispute, the Japanese will reportedly dangle the prospect of increased Soviet access to Japanese high technology. Japan suspended technology exchanges with the Soviet Union in 1982 in support of the United States's protest of Soviet support for martial law in Poland.
The lure of Japanese technology for the Soviet Union is undeniable, yet also easily overstated. The Soviets are making a major push to update this country's hidebound economy using science and technology.
``It's pretty natural to think of Japan'' as a supplier, says one diplomat. ``It makes sense in terms of the economic priorities of the Soviet Union. The Japanese have tremendous potential to assist in [Soviet] development, particularly in the Soviet Far East,'' he adds.
Still, it is a potential that has yet to be realized. Since the 1970s, there have been volumes written about the ``natural match'' of the oil-and-resource-rich but underdeveloped Soviet Far East with the highly developed yet resource-poor Japanese economy.
But poor political relations, coupled with Japan's success in finding other markets for its products, combined to squelch a rapid expansion of trade. At the same time, Japan's economy became less energy-intensive in the late 1970s and early '80s, and the need for Soviet oil was not as acute.
Moreover, the Japanese found dealing with Moscow's bureaucracy a frustrating exercise. For all the talk of a ``natural match'' between the two countries, the diplomat notes, ``there has not been a natural match between the Soviet bureaucrats in Moscow and the businessmen from Japan.''
But despite the obstacles in Moscow's path, diplomats say that it has shown no ``give'' on the territiorial dispute. Pravda, in a Jan. 8 article, said Japan's claims on the island were ``unsubstantiated and unlawful.''
Mr. Kapitsa, however, says differences over that issue should not prevent the countries from talking to one another. Using the analogy of a marriage, he said, ``Just because you don't agree with your wife about something . . . doesn't mean you don't go home to her at night.''
Nor, it might be added, does one try to prolong estrangements.
Accordingly, Moscow is also moving to improve its icy relations with China. That was believed to be one of the top foreign-policy objectives of former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, and his prot'eg'e, Mikhail Gorbachev, seems to be following in Andropov's wake.
Last year, Kapitsa was dispatched to Peking and came away with an agreement for visits by each country's foreign minister during 1986.
But the fact that China, the world's most populous communist country, does not recognize Moscow's primacy in the world communist movement is clearly galling to the Kremlin.
Kapitsa said that the Soviet and Chinese communist parties have no relations. He added that it is an open question as to whether Chinese delegates will attend next month's once-in-five-years Soviet party congress.
Chinese officials say there can be no significant improvement in relations until the Soviet Union addresses China's three concerns: Soviet support of the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, the heavy concentration of Soviet troops along China's northern border, and Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
The Soviets claim that they have only a ``limited military contingent'' in Afghanistan at the request of the Afghan government. And Tass, the official Soviet news agency, says that the Vietnamese troops in Cambodia are merely ``volunteers'' that ``threaten nobody.'' The news agency said that ``these contingents will be withdrawn when there disappears a threat to Kampuchea [Cambodia] from outside.''
Shevardnadze will also visit North Korea on his return from Japan. A contingent from the North Korean Communist Party recently visited Moscow and was received in the Kremlin.
But relations between Moscow and South Korea remain frosty. Soviet officials are hinting at a boycott of the 1988 summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, unless events are also held in North Korea.
Soviet leader Gorbachev is also expected to visit India sometime this year, although dates have not been set yet. The Soviets invest substantial effort in keeping good relations with India, partly as a counterweight for their lack of influence with the other regional giant, China.
Recently, the Soviets have revived proposals for creating an Asian security council. But Western diplomats report there is little enthusiasm for the plan, because a number of countries see it as an ``anti-China'' grouping designed to shore up Moscow's standing in the region but offering few incentives to Asian nations.
One diplomat says that the inability to offer substantial economic aid or an open market for Asian nations is the Soviet's biggest stumbling block in the region.
``What can the Soviets offer Asian nations?'' asks one diplomat. Another said that the Soviet interest in Asia seems to be mostly a push for ``better trade relations'' that would primarily benefit Moscow.