Asians are accustomed to political ironies, but the idea of a warmer Tokyo- Moscow relationship under the premiership of Yasuhiro Nakasone strains the imagination.
Could anything in Japan be more bizarre than a Nakasone-Gorbachev summit? Yet this is exactly what appears to be shaping up.Former Foreign Minister Yoshio Sakurauchi plans to meet Soviet President Andrei Gromyko in Moscow next month to discuss the timing of an official visit to Japan of Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. In addition, Foreign Minister Tadashi Kuranari also will discuss the timing of the proposed visit when he meets with Eduard Shevardnadze, his Soviet counterpart, while attending the regular session of the United Nations' General Assembly in New York.
Their discussions are scheduled for Sept. 24. It seems plausible that there will be a summit involving these two leaders in Tokyo later this year or perhaps early in 1987, most likely in January. It would be the first visit to Tokyo by a general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.
The assumption in Tokyo, of course, is that the Nakasone administration will extend beyond October when the prime minister's term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expires. The LDP president is automatically named the country's prime minister since the party maintains a solid majority in both houses of Japan's parliament.
If the Nakasone-Gorbachev summit finally takes place it would be a meeting between two of the most skilled practitioners of political survival in recent years, it should be noted. Each man is capable of daring decisions.
Actually, officials of Japan and the Soviet Union agreed to exchange visits by top leaders of the two countries during a foreign ministerial meeting in Tokyo last January. Mr. Sakurauchi, a close associate of the highly conservative Prime Minister Nakasone, believes that such a summit would offer an excellent opportunity for maneuver and subsequent progress in Soviet- Japanese relations.
Mr. Nakasone's bitterest critics are already privately denouncing the idea of a summit as opportunism," but it may require just such a meeting to break the 40 years of strained deadlock between Tokyo and Moscow over the mid-1945 seizure and occupation by the Soviets of four small southern Kurile islands off Hokkaido. The Japanese have long demanded that these islands be returned.
Continued refusal of Soviet authorities to even consider evacuation of these northern territories (as the Japanese refer to the islands) continues to pose a major barrier to the signing of a peace treaty to formally end the state of war between the two nations.
In the narrowest and most immediate context, a Nakasone-Gorbachev summit would provide a chance to resolve this key issue. But in a wider and longer- range sense, it would be an obvious opportunity for both countries to greatly improve their relations, perhaps offering a fresh start for both sides.
The question is whether Mr. Gorbachev is prepared to deal with the northern territorial prob lem despite the cultural and ideological chasm that separates Tokyo from Moscow. Yet each side might be prepared at last for a gingerly new look at the other - or at least a serious testing of the climate.
Apparently the Soviet leader is more than a little interested in improving ties with Japan, but it's doubtful that he is really able to come to grips with the territorial issue as part of an effort to normalize bilateral relations would, considering past negative responses to Tokyo's demands.
For four decades, the Japanese have failed to find any shift in Soviet strategy on this point of contention and, despite Mr. Gorbachev's recent initiatives, none appear likely to be forthcoming.
Yet Soviet specialists inside the Japanese government now see some reasons to hope. To a number of these specialists, for example, the Kremlin leader's speech in Vladivostok on July 28 in which he proposed holding of a forum on Asian-Pacific security, possibly in Japan's atom bombed city of Hiroshima, might suggest Mr. Gorbachev is prepared to make some concessions regarding these four tiny islands.
In his speech, for instance, Mr. Gorbachev noted that Japan and the U.S.S.R. should work together to deepen their relations and place them on a sound and realistic footing in a quiet atmosphere free from past problems."
What are the prospects for the success of such talks in this regard? In the short run, probably close to zero. Such requests by Japan could easily be rejected once again and even denounced, considering that the return of the territories would set a bad precedent for Moscow in view of the fact that the Soviet Union continues to hold significant European land areas taken at the end of World War II.
Nonetheless, a new attempt by both countries to come to terms could produce long-run economic consequences, perhaps beginning with the planned resumption Sept. 16 of talks on Japanese-Soviet scientific and technological cooperation. These talks broke off in 1982 as part of Tokyo's sanctions against Moscow in connection with the situation in Poland at that time.
The stubborn attitude of the Soviets toward Japan's territorial claims would appear to suit Washington quite well. But if Mr. Gorbachev can reverse this strategy it would definitely make geopolitical sense in East Asia, becoming a larger act of statesmanship appreciated not only in Japan but also in China as well.
Mr. Nakasone personally would profit handsomely from such a historic achievement since a diplomatic coup of this magnitude might easily allow him to prolong his premiership for another year or possibly even two. Some political analysts in Tokyo contend that Prime Minister Nakasone has long planned to play his Soviet card and that now, following his party's resounding election victory in July, he clearly believes the time is ripe.
Ambitious though he may be, the Japanese premier must translate his goal into political real ity and to do this he must first somehow convince the Soviet leader that returning the four insignificant islands and thereafter signing a peace treaty ultimately would considerably benefit Moscow. That could be quite an accomplishment.
A.E. Cullison is Tokyo Bureau chief of The Journal of Commerce.