Yuri Andropov appears to be lighting a fire under United States diplomacy. Vice-President George Bush is being dispatched to Europe at the end of the month while Secretary of State George Shultz will be travelling to China and other Asian parts. The Shultz trip has long been in the making, of course, but it comes at a good time. Mr. Andropov is off to a fast start diplomatically, with arms control overtures to Europe and truce feelers to Peking. Unless Washington gets a move on, it may find itself uncomfortably outflanked.
Not that the US should be in the business of merely reacting to moves by the Kremlin. On the contrary, it ought to be shaping and implementing forward-looking policies that advance the interests of global peace and progress whether these impinge on East-West relations or not. Thus, the US should seek a stable, constructive relationship with China not simply because of the Sino-Soviet equation, but because of China's importance as a potential world power. The US also wants a strong alliance with Europe not only because the Soviet Union overshadows the continent, but because Americans and Europeans have shared values and parallel interests in many other parts of the world.
But the missions of the two Georges do have relevance to Soviet initiatives. Washington is concerned that Mr. Andropov, through his arms control proposals, may succeed in roiling relations between the US and Western Europe, thereby promoting the long-term Soviet goal of splitting off one from the other. There is a great deal of public support in Europe for nuclear arms control and, if Mr. Andropov can show himself the dynamic peacemaker - and Ronald Reagan the reluctant arms controller - he may gain a major propaganda advantage and cause considerable damage politically.
This will be a critical year in Europe. The West Germans go to the polls in March and Chancellor Kohl, who is strongly committed to the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles, may find himself under severe challenge from the antinuclear movement. Mr. Andropov hopes to galvanize that movement to stop installation of the missiles. And he may succeed, there and elsewhere in Europe , unless Mr. Bush can persuade West European audiences that the US is seriously negotiating a reduction in arms.
What distresses many Europeans is the apparent intractability of the American position. In the matter of theater nuclear weapons they of course see through the flaws of Mr. Andropov's recent counterproposal to the US ''zero option,'' but they believe the counterproposal at least represents Soviet movement in the right direction, warranting US flexibility. Yet Washington's response so far has been negative. Although US rhetoric has softened of late, this will have to translate into a more forthcoming negotiating position before many Europeans are convinced. Continuing disarray in the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency - as a result of President Reagan's unwillingness to stand up to congressional opposition to his appointments - also tends to undercut the US public posture and feed European concern.
On the other side of the globe, US diplomacy faces a less critical task for Sino-American relations have been on the mend in recent months. However, the Chinese leadership continues to be suspicious of Mr. Reagan's pro-Taiwan sympathies. Mr. Shultz will be going to mainland China for the first time and, inasmuch as his diplomatic style is to keep travel to a minimum, he obviously understands the importance of nurturing the sensitive US relationship with Peking. Here, in addition to prospects for more trade, there is a mutuality of interest in counterbalancing the growing Soviet presence in Asia.
Other areas of the world also invite attention as Mr. Andropov launches a ''peace offensive,'' a development forecast by Columbia University scholar Seweryn Bialer in an interview with this newspaper last fall. It would not be surprising, for instance, to see the Soviet leader patch up relations with Japan. Indeed one of the most puzzling facets of Brezhnev's foreign policy was his almost gratuitous alienation of the Japanese, whose technology is needed to help develop the resources of Siberia. From the Kremlin's point of view, it would be a smart move to resolve the island dispute with Japan - and, from Washington's point of view, to make sure that trade and defense problems do not impair the strong US-Japanese bond. Mr. Shultz, fortunately, plans a stopover in Tokyo as well.
Whether Europe or Asia, however, it will take more than diplomatic appearances and pleasant words to calm concerns. As the old saw goes, it is not what one says but what one does that counts. Mr. Andropov is cleverly trying to seize the initiative. Will the United States let him?