The United States and the Soviet Union will hold two days of talks in Moscow this week covering Indochina, Korea and other issues involving the two superpowers' strategic interests in Asia, State Department sources said yesterday.
The planned sessions Thursday and Friday, the first U.S.-Soviet talks in decades specifically devoted to Asia, will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Kapitsa, the highest-ranking Soviet specialist on Asia, and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Paul Wolfowitz.
The meetings were described by U.S. sources as an exchange of views rather than negotiations, in keeping with President Reagan's proposal at the U.N. General Assembly last Sept. 24 for U.S.-Soviet regional policy discussions to avoid miscalculation, reduce the risk of military confrontation and help find peaceful solutions.
The Moscow talks come as both the United States and the Soviet Union have been placing increased emphasis on East Asia and the Pacific in their military and political activities, and as the Soviets struggle for an economic toehold in the region where U.S. trade is now centered. The talks also take place as Moscow and Washington are trading verbal broadsides in a contentious buildup to the Nov. 19-20 U.S.-Soviet summit in Geneva.
The region includes the two places where the United States has gone to war since World War II, Korea and Indochina, which were described by U.S. officials as still among the areas of greatest tension and danger of "flashpoint" violence.
About 40,000 U.S. troops remain on duty in South Korea, facing communist North Korean forces recently supplied by Moscow with more-sophisticated MiG23 aircraft. Guerrilla war continues in Cambodia between the Vietnamese and insurgent forces backed by China, Thailand and increasingly by the United States.
Three sets of U.S.-Soviet regional discussions were held earlier this year covering the Middle East, Southern Africa and Afghanistan. Although Moscow made clear many months ago that it was also interested in talks covering East Asia, Washington was skittish, apparently for fear of generating worry and suspicion on the part of China, Japan and other allies and friends in the region.
China, a former Soviet ally with increasingly close ties to the United States and the West, is a particularly delicate question. About a third of Moscow's military forces are deployed in Soviet Asia, mostly along its lengthy border with China.
Sources said Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, in the course of their July 31 meeting in Helsinki, decided to go ahead with the Asian sessions. The State Department has since discussed the plan with Asian and other allies, emphasizing that there is no thought of a U.S.-Soviet strategic arrangement or "condominium" flowing from the talks.
A meeting with the United States on Asian matters could be seen in Moscow as a step toward convening a collective security arrangement for Asia similar to the East-West accords and arrangements in Europe that were capped by the 1975 Helsinki Conference.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev proposed a collective Asian security arrangement in a May 21 address during the Moscow visit of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Gorbachev acknowledged that such Asian arrangements could be complicated but suggested a variety of methods, "from bilateral talks and multilateral consultations to holding at some future point an all-Asian forum for an exchange of opinions and a joint search for constructive solutions."
Soviet officials subsequently made clear their recognition of a U.S. role in consultations and arrangements about Asian security. A recent Library of Congress report quoted a Soviet diplomat as saying Asian security could encompass negotiated limits on U.S. and Soviet naval operations in the Western Pacific, an agreement with Japan on establishing a treaty of "good-neighborly" relations, and an agreement with China designed to establish "confidence-building measures."
Neither the United States nor any of the East Asian nations outside the Soviet bloc has shown interest in Gorbachev's proposed Asian security arrangement, which is the outgrowth of a proposal by former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. "What is needed in Asia now is not a grand conference but progress on resolving some very specific problems," said a State Department official involved in planning this week's Moscow talks.
The official said the U.S. delegation will take up the growing Soviet military role in the region, including an army, air force and missile buildup on the Chinese border, a Soviet naval buildup in and around its Asian ports, increasingly wide-ranging Soviet naval activity in the mid-Pacific, use of Camranh Bay in Vietnam as an advance base for Soviet air and naval forces, and the supply of the MiG23s and other advanced weaponry to North Korea.
In the past several months Soviet warplanes have been permitted to overfly North Korean territory to the Yellow Sea bordering China and Soviet naval vessels have called at North Korean ports -- activities being keenly watched by the United States, South Korea and Japan.
The Soviet Union under Gorbachev is placing greater emphasis on improving relations with its communist rival, China, and on repairing relations with Japan and other Asian states. But there is no sign, U.S. officials said, that Moscow is ready for the military compromises deemed essential for any basic or lasting improvement of its political arrangements in the area.