THE Soviet Union -- whose role in East Asian affairs had ebbed during the last decade -- is once again asserting its status in the region; this is consistent with its standing as a global power and a transcontinental nation with borders in both Europe and Asia. In the process, the Soviets, under new leader Mikhail Gorbachev, are showing renewed vigor and freshness in their foreign policy, including a willingness to take considerable risks in offending other governments if the risks are offset by improved goodwill on the part of the public of those nations. For other major participants in East Asian affairs, particularly the United States, the new, more assertive Soviet foreign policy presents some genuine challenges -- as well as new opportunities to further its own interests.
Case in point: the recent visit by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to Japan and then North Korea, en route home. Mr. Shevardnadze's trip to Tokyo cannot be said to have resolved any of the longstanding differences between Moscow and Tokyo -- such as the failure of the two sides to make progress on the return by the Soviets to Tokyo of four islands off the northern coast of Japan. The Japanese insist that returning the islands is a precondition for concluding a peace treaty between the two sides.
But all that is really beside the point. Shevardnadze's visit was never intended to settle major policy differences. Its importance, from the outset, was simply in its having been planned at all -- the first high-level visit by a Soviet to Japan in the past decade. Mr. Shevardnadze's predecessor, Andrei Gromyko, had preferred to bypass Tokyo in his overall foreign policy deliberations, in part out of a reluctance to face Japan on the issue of the islands. But the larger chill toward Tokyo was also expressed toward other major Asian powers, including China. Moscow's major strategic allies in the region were Vietnam and North Korea, and even with these two nations there were occasional disagreements.
The Soviet Union is now signaling that its policy of ``distance'' toward East Asia is over. The Japan trip is one indication. The visit to North Korea, where the Soviets would like to establish naval facilities, is another. The Soviet Union and China are expected to exchange visits by their respective foreign ministers later in the year, although the Chinese -- seeking to establish their ``equidistance'' between Moscow and Washington -- continue to be coy about when those visits may take place. Finally, looking at the periphery of the region, Mr. Gorbachev is expected to visit India sometime in 1986.
What is going on here?
The Soviets sense an opportunity for driving a wedge between the US and East Asia, because of frictions related to trade. They are concerned at the increasing linkage between the US and Japan in such matters as computers -- areas that have adverse military implications for the Soviets. And they would like themselves to tap into the lucrative Asian market.
Stepped-up Soviet interest in Asia can be in the world's best interest. Enlarged dialogue between nations has its uses. At the same time, the Western nations stand to gain, in the sense that Soviet shortcomings in the region -- those pertaining to the four islands off Japan and to Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, an intervention triggering deep disfavor within most Asian chancelleries -- tend to stand out all the more clearly.