MUCH attention has been fixed on whether and when Mikhail Gorbachev will visit Washington. Very little attention has been paid to his plan to visit Tokyo. That's a mistake. Mr. Gorbachev's trip to Japan -- possibly in January, possibly later -- is of major importance because he may attempt to realign an economic superpower. He is not likely to succeed. But his attempt merits close scrutiny.
A Gorbachev trip to Japan would be the first by a Soviet general secretary in the post-World War II period. During that time, Kremlin policy toward Japan can only be described as based on contempt, neglect, or both.
Japanese diplomat Minoru Tamba, who was born in the Soviet Pacific island of Sakhalin and has served both in Washington and Moscow, reports that an American scholar asked a Soviet official in charge of Asian policy at the beginning of the decade what was the core Kremlin policy toward Japan. The answer was quick and blunt: ``intimidation.''
That shortsighted Gromykoist approach has been baffling. There are two military superpowers in the world: the United States and the Soviet Union. There are two economic superpowers: the US and Japan. It has long been puzzling that Moscow made so little attempt to play its Japan card. That failure has made American policymaking toward the Northwest Pacific relatively easy.
Gorbachev's recent overtures to Japan, and his proposed summit with Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone in Tokyo, raise the question of whether that era of Kremlin contempt and US relaxation may come to an end.
On the surface, it would appear for several reasons that Gorbachev has picked a good time to gain ground by shifting to a more friendly policy:
1. Washington's trade tensions with Tokyo are not ebbing as planned. The 40 percent decline in the value of the dollar against the yen in the past year has not led to the expected closing of the huge US-Japan trade gap.
2. Gorbachev has a carrot to dangle. He can, if he wishes, use the four Soviet-occupied Japanese islands northeast of Hokkaido as a lure.
3. Gorbachev's ambitious plans to modernize, retool, and automate Soviet industry require just the kind of high-tech equipment and expertise in which Japan is a leader. The Soviet party boss must hope that he can use the fierce Japan-US-West Europe competition for world markets to his advantage.
4. The long-tempting concept of bartering the raw materials (minerals, petroleum, and forest products) of the Soviet Far East for Japanese expertise and investment still rises like a tempting mirage in the direction of the rising sun. Mr. Gorbachev seemed to be peering at that vision when he extended an olive branch to Tokyo in his major July speech at Vladivostok. He proposed joint enterprises ``in the . . . geographically close regions of the USSR and Japan.''
If America's economic center has been gradually moving westward, the USSR's has been shifting eastward. Already some 90 percent of Soviet energy resources come from Siberia and the Far East.
These are tempting ingredients for a dramatic change of Kremlin policy. They may also be misleading.
True, Mr. Gorbachev may be more tempted after he visits Japan than when he merely reads memos about Japan's extraordinary progress. Once the Soviet leader sees for himself how much more efficient are the robots, computer controls, and even the dormitories, shops, and sports facilities at a Japanese auto factory than at a showplace Soviet auto factory, he may be jolted.
But several factors work against any realignment that might swing the Japanese economic superpower away from the US to the USSR military superpower.
First, the Soviet-raw-materials-for-Japanese-development-of-Siberia scenario has been fading. Japan has been satisfying its energy needs without Siberian fuel. And the Japanese economy has generally passed beyond the stage of processing of raw materials. It now is heavily involved in so-called value-added production -- the technologically advanced stages of manufacturing, whose raw-materials phase is carried on elsewhere.
Second, the USSR has yet to prove itself ready to create joint enterprises with Western companies on its own territory.
Third, most signs point to Kremlin strategists demanding a major shift in exchange for the Japanese islands. Gorbachev policy, while more sophisticated than late-Brezhnev policy, still seems aimed at splitting the US-European and US-Japanese alliances, as well as US-Chinese cooperation. Gorbachev's Politburo associates may not agree to any bargaining over the islands unless it promises to erode the transpacific alliance. And that seems unlikely.
This third point leads to a fourth, more speculative one: namely, that the ``star wars'' research, which Gorbachev so openly wants to blunt, may in future hold a particular attraction for Japan.
By constitution, Japan is prevented from having nuclear weapons. It also forswears offensive military policies in favor of defensive ones. Given this situation, the ground, air, and sea application of ``star wars'' technology (as opposed to its complicated use in space) would fit future Japanese needs.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.