United States and Soviet nuclear arms negotiators returned to their tedious but vital business in Geneva this week. Both are on a short leash. Each side is holding back from even theoretically examining areas of concession in hopes that the other side will blink first.
Outwardly the picture is one in which the superpowers have gone back to the nuclear bargaining table this winter and spring to battle for European and world opinion -- but are just marking time while each turns inward to economic matters. But more US-Soviet movement is afoot than meets the eye.
Last week the US, the Soviet Union, and Japan held the third round of secret air-safety talks aimed at preventing future incidents like the 1983 Korean airline shoot-down. The atmosphere reportedly has been nonpolemic and technically oriented.
US-Soviet trade talks have progressed well.
And Politburo leaders have picked up on President Reagan's suggestion at the UN last fall that the nuclear Big Two hold quiet talks about regional trouble spots. They have already held an inconclusive conversation about their views of the Mideast. Shortly, high-level diplomats from Washington and Moscow will meet to talk about (1) Afghanistan and (2) southern Africa (Cuban troops in Angola, Namibia, the South-West Africa People's Organization, South Africa, Mozambique).
To counter any hint that he is dealing from weakness, new Soviet boss Mikhail Gorbachev continues to talk tough about both the US Strategic Defense Initiative (or ``star wars,'' as it is popularly called) and Afghanistan. He has kept up pressure on the Pakistanis about allowing arms flow and sanctuary to Afghan guerrillas. And Soviet occupation troops in Afghanistan are said to have started yet another big sweep into territory where rebel Afghans operate.
But Pakistan's President, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who received Mr. Gorbachev's ire directly at the funeral of Konstantin Chernenko in March, professes not to be disturbed by Soviet threats of retaliation. And Washington can apparently count on General Zia's continued complacence about funneling assistance to Afghan fighters as long as the US gives multibillion-dollar aid to Pakistan.
India's still-fledgling premier, Rajiv Gandhi, sustained his family tradition of turning to Moscow to counteract that US support for Pakistan. Last week he did his best in Moscow to confirm nonaligned India's gratitude to the Kremlin for economic and military aid.
But next week he travels the other leg of the triangle -- Washington. It seems apparent that India, like its neighbor China, is trying to make its relations with the two superpowers more balanced. In Peking's case, this has been a matter of normalizing ties with Moscow after a quarter-century of bitter estrangement. In New Delhi's case, it marks a pragmatic realization that trade and investment (and high-tech expertise) to expand the Indian economy will come mostly from the West.
On the whole both the superpower maneuvering and the repositioning of India and China, the two most populous nations, are mildly hopeful signs. Moscow and Washington have not broken through their half-decade of stagnant and sour relations to a summit -- with new agreements sealed or new momentum created. But their trade talks have gone well, as expected. The air-safety talks may lead to a restoration of landing rights for Soviet airliners in the US and US airliners in Moscow.
If trade and air-route talks succeed, restoration of more-active cultural and scientific exchanges is likely to resurface as the next bargaining topic. And the talks on regional trouble spots, while not likely to cause any early agreements, represent moves to understand each other's needs and perceptions with detailed clarity. Other such regional-focus discussions -- probably on Southeast Asia and Central America -- are to be scheduled later.
None of this chain of lesser talks guarantees more trust. Nor will they lead to the untying of knots at the Geneva nuclear-arms talks. But economic pressure on Gorbachev -- and to some extent, Mr. Reagan -- may make Geneva delaying tactics costly.
On the Soviet side, Gorbachev and his handpicked managerial reformers would find it much easier to rev up the laggard economy if they could get easier access to Western investment for retooling out-of-date plants. Ditto Western technology. Ditto oil-drilling and piping equipment. Ditto agribusiness equipment.
Even Japan and China, not parties to the arms talks, play an indirect role. Part of the Kremlin's tough bargaining stance on medium-range nuclear missiles has been to back away from earlier offers that SS-20 missiles in eastern Siberia would be limited. The West has long argued that the SS-20s were mobile enough to be a threat to Western Europe, the Mideast, and to China and Japan, and that therefore they needed to be strictly limited by treaty on both the western and eastern Soviet frontiers.
Moscow has quietly hinted to Tokyo it might like to explore once more the subject of Japanese investment in mineral and forest-products exploitation in Siberia. Both that and the Kremlin's interest in improving relations with China would benefit if nuclear missiles in Asian Siberia were limited to what would be seen as strictly defensive deterrent totals.
Gorbachev now appears to be offering such a limit once more.
Speaking this week at a Kremlin dinner for visiting Italian Premier Bettino Craxi, he returned to the 1983 Kremlin position, proposing a freeze on medium-range missiles in Asia.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor. Joseph C. Harsch is on vacation.