For years, the Soviet Union has been peering over its back fence at the booming economies of the Pacific Basin. Now the Soviets want to join the action. ``We want to be a real partner of Pacific countries in the economic field,'' said Yevgeny Primakov, a top advisor to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Primakov headed a delegation here last week seeking membership in the Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference (PECC), a 15-nation group promoting economic integration.
Simply by coming to this conference, Primakov said, ``we are giving up some dogmatic judgments we had in the past.'' The very concept of a Pacific Community, he said, had been condemned as a stalking horse for a military alliance against the Soviet Union.
Now the Soviet Union is looking to the Pacific as a source of economic energy, of technology and investment, to help revitalize its own economy. ``We want to develop our Far Eastern district,'' said Primakov. ``And we want to do it through extensive development of ... international economic links with Pacific countries.''
The Soviets freely state that their Far East region is stagnant. Compared with the ``leap of economic development'' in countries like South Korea and Taiwan, Primakov said in a March speech, ``there is still no economic development in the Asia-Pacific part of the Soviet Union.''
But the Soviet bid to open up to the Pacific is running into cautious and even suspicious response from countries like Japan and the United States. Leaders of their delegations to the PECC cited two obstacles to Soviet membership - their state-run economy and their minimal economic role in the Pacific region.
``The problem is that, although the Soviet Union is a very large country and a significant geographic presence in the Pacific,'' explained Ambassador Richard Fairbanks, ``their economic presence doesn't compare with countries that are PECC members.'' Soviet trade with Pacific nations is only 4 to 5 percent of its total trade, compared to at least 50 percent for most Pacific nations' trading with others in the region, said Mr. Fairbanks, a former State Department official who heads the US PECC organization.
(PECC is a loose organization that includes businessmen, academic experts, and government officials.)
Fairbanks, echoing other delegates, cited the ``question of fitting a centrally planned economy into the system'' of free markets prevailing in the Pacific.
The US position, said Primakov, ``is illogical. If they want us to be more open ... why don't they want us to be in PECC?''
China, he pointed out, has been admitted to membership. ``The Chinese economy is not completely centralized but anyhow it is planned.'' Moreover, he said, Moscow's perestroika, the process of economic reform, is already well under way and helping to open the door to cooperation with Pacific countries.
Foreign firms can now enter into joint ventures with Soviet enterprises, and Primakov stressed that this can be done ``autonomously'' in the Far East, without direction from Moscow. Even more strikingly, he told the conference, ``the question of free economic zones is under consideration.'' Such designated coastal areas have been a key part of Chinese reform, offering foreign investors opportunities to set up factories, wholly owned by the investors, to manufacture products for export.
The Soviets have looked most of all to Japanese firms for fresh investment in the development of the Siberian region. But Japanese response has been cool. Trade has declined or stagnated through last year and there is great caution toward investment despite the new conditions.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry is less than impressed by Soviet reforms. Its view is expressed by Prof. Seizaburo Sato, an influential academic who was a leader at the PECC meeting. ``We shouldn't forget, despite the soft style, the basic foreign-policy goals of the Soviet Union are unchanged,'' he said, explaining opposition to Soviet PECC membership.
Japanese policy has stressed the demand for a return of the ``northern territories,'' the four islands of the Kurile chain occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, as the basis for improvement of relations.
Primakov cites the ``conservative nature of the Japanese establishment'' as one reason for the chill. ``Maybe they think they can use negativism toward the Soviet Union as leverage to make us give some concession toward the northern islands.''
The Soviets have insisted that the border will not be renegotiated. But Primakov hints that if relations improve in other areas such as economics, it would ``create an atmosphere in which [the territorial issue] could be discussed more seriously, more calmly.''