United States and Soviet leaders appear to be warily testing each other's intentions about the possibility of limiting nuclear weapons in Europe. When President Carter flies to Tokyo July 8 for memorial services for the late Japanese Prime Minister Masayoshi Ohira, he may be able to discuss new Soviet proposals with foreign leaders, including Chinese Communist Party Chairman Hua Guofeng.
In Europe, China has for years been urging the NATO powers to reinforce their defenses against the Soviets. Of the Soviet Union's total of 47 tank divisions and 118 motorized infantry divisions, it deploys about 6 tank and 40 infantry divisions on the Sino-Soviet border. It has also reinforced missile and Air Force deployment in the Far East and in South Asia, especially since the large-scale invasion of Afghanistan began last December.
Mr. Carter's cautious remark Saturday in Plains, Ga., was that it is "still too early to tell" whether the United States would be willing to talk with the Russians about canceling deployment of 572 new nuclear-tipped missiles in Western Europe. The NATO governments decided on this deployment last Dec. 12, as a response to Soviet SS-20 missile and Backfire bomber buildups which target West Europe.
Administration informants say the Soviet offer -- through West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who recently visited Moscow -- to start talking about limiting theater missiles and other weapons in Europe is no longer conditioned on previous ratification by the US Senate of the Delayed Salt II arms-control treaty.
Apparently, they add, the Soviets are also dropping -- or at least muting -- their insistence that NATO cancel the Dec. 12 missile deployment decision before starting talks.
In return, the Soviets want the US to agree for the first time to include talks to reduce nuclear-armed fighter bombers, based in West Europe, in the negotiations about so-called "gray area" intermediate-range theater nuclear weapons.
Further, the Brezhnev proposals, as transmitted through Chancellor Schmidt, would stipulate that the US Senate must finally approve Salt II if any new theater arms restrictions agreed upon are to take effect.
In practical terms, this would mean that the Carter administration, already under heavy campaign fire from Republican Ronald Reagan's defense-minded followers for alleged weakness and indecision on defense, would have to agree for the first time to discuss downgrading the US Air Force, Europe (USAFE).
President Carter's possible meetings with Chinese leader Hua, and with European leaders in Tokyo, could give him and them an opportunity to exchange views over the drift of Soviet intentions.
Both President Carter and Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie have said they believe Mr. Brezhnev was "sincere" in passing the arms-limitation ideas on through West German Chancellor Helmudt Schmidt when Mr. Schmidt visited Moscow last week.
Early West European reaction to the Schmidt trip was that it has helped a bit to relax East-West tensions generated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and also to reestablish East-West communications.
Administration analysts say any Carter-Hua meeting could obviously shed some light on what China thinks the Soviet strategy is in regard to the current strife between Thailand and Soviet-backed Vietnamese troops in Cambodia. Thailand is a US ally, which, with obvious Chinese approval, began receiving emergency US arms aid Sunday.
At present, USAFE bases, or occasionally deploys, well over 800 combat aircraft on airfields in Britain, Spain, Italy, West Germany, the Netherlands, Greece, and Turkey. Four of the Soviet Union's 16 tactical air armies -- a total of about 1,700 combat aircraft -- operate from Warsaw Pact or Soviet airfields close to West Europe.
As he finished defense talks with European leaders last week, US Defense Secretary Harold Brown told a French television questioner that NATO's Dec. 22 "Euromissile" decision, as it is commonly called in West Europe, was motivated largely by the purely military need to counter Soviet buildups. "Backing away from such a decision," Secretary Brown added, "wil suggest a loss of political will that could be, in my judgment, very dangerous."
Probably by coincidence, the Army Department announced July 1, the day of Chancellor Schmidt's return from Moscow, that it had selected proposed launch sites for flight testing of the Pershing II missile system, earmarked for NATO deployment. Pershing II improves over its predecessor, Pershing I, in range and accuracy and has a built- in "radar area correlator," the Army says.