The Japanese government has welcomed Mikhail Gorbachev's recent offer to eliminate all Soviet medium- and short-range nuclear missiles from both Asia and Europe. ``This is in line with what we have demanded the Soviets do,'' commented one foreign ministry official. Japanese officials frankly admit, however, that they were not expecting this Soviet concession.
In arms control negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF), the Soviets have insisted, until now, on retaining 100 warheads on SS-20 missiles based in the Asian part of the Soviet Union. The missiles are believed to be targeted at China, Japan, and South Korea.
Japanese security experts are now trying to figure out the reasons for the Soviet shift.
``The most plausible explanation,'' says the foreign ministry official, ``is overall US-USSR relations. Mr. Gorbachev badly needs a summit and therefore he needs an INF agreement.''
``This can accelerate the process of INF negotiations,'' the official believes, trading the Asian missiles concessions for desired reciprocal American concessions on issues relating to elimination of the European-based missiles. Japanese officials also see the proposal as aimed at wooing Asian nations.
The offer, agrees National Defense Academy professor Masashi Nishihara, is an attempt to ``gain political benefits in Asian diplomacy.''
Gorbachev advanced the proposal in an interview on July 21 with the Indonesian newspaper Merdeka. The interview marked the one year anniversary of a milestone speech on Soviet-Asian relations delivered by Gorbachev in the far eastern port city of Vladivostok.
The interview, like the Vladivostok speech, covers a wide range of issues but focuses on broad Soviet proposals on the security of the Asia-Pacific region.
Japanese analysts see a parallel between this Asian diplomacy and Soviet efforts to drive a wedge between the United States and its Western European allies. China, not Japan, is the key target of this Soviet effort.
The Soviets, the foreign ministry official remarked, ``can use this decision to improve relations with China. In my view, the China factor is definitely very important.''
Initial Chinese reaction to the Gorbachev proposal has been to cautiously welcome it. The Chinese position on the INF talks, like that of Japan, has been to call for equality of treatment of Asia with Europe and to oppose any pact which would ``harm the interests of a third country.''
The agreement reached at the Reykjavik summit, to reduce European missiles to zero while leaving 100 Asian-based warheads, was worrisome to both countries.
While the overall Soviet thrust is to advance their Asian ties, Japanese analysts believe that improvement of relations with Japan is not high on the Soviet agenda. Pessimistic remarks about Japan by Gorbachev in the Merdeka interview are in marked contrast to his warm words toward all other Asian nations.
As Gorbachev noted, only a year ago, after a long chill, Japan-Soviet relations were beginning to get better. ``Not so long ago there seemed to be a ray of hope, and discussion even began about my visiting Japan ... but there are forces in Japan that managed to drive dark clouds up over the horizon again,'' he said.
The ``dark clouds,'' say some Japanese analysts, refer to the tough anti-Soviet stance adopted here in the wake of the disclosures of illegal transfers of Japanese technology to the Soviet Union.
More generally, Moscow has expressed opposition to Japan's steady defense buildup, including closer security links with the US. The Japanese, for their part, have expressed similar skepticism regarding Soviet intentions toward Japan and Asia in general.
``The real aim [of the Gorbachev proposal] is to denuclearize Europe and to denuclearize Asia,'' comments Mr. Nishihara. ``With the huge conventional superiority the Russians have, that's not very good for us.'' The Soviets, he says, will also demand reciprocal actions by the US in Asia, particularly reducing the functions of bases in Japan and the Philippines.
In the Merdeka interview, Gorbachev stated: ``We do not link this initiative with the US nuclear presence in Korea, the Philippines, and the island of Diego Garcia.'' But, he added suggestively, ``we would like to hope that there will be no buildup of this presence.''
As he did in the Vladivostok speech, Gorbachev pushed ideas for further controls on military forces in the Asia-Pacific region. The Soviet Union, Gorbachev told Merdeka, is prepared to freeze current levels of ``nuclear capable aircraft in the Asian part of the country, provided the US does not station additional nuclear systems here that are capable of reaching the USSR's territory.''
The Soviet leader also mentioned mutual limits on antisubmarine activity. The Northern Pacific, he suggests, would be the first model for such ``confidence-building'' steps.
Japanese defense analysts see this as a thinly disguised effort to reverse the continued superiority of the US Pacific Fleet, backed by its Japanese allies.
The Soviets, according to one war planner in Japan's Defense Agency, want to curb the US Navy's force of submarine-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. They also want to protect their bastion of nuclear ballistic missile carrying submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk from US-Japan anti-submarine warfare capabilities, the war planner says.