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China Plays Superpowers by Own Rules

October 12, 1986|Jim Mann | Jim Mann is The Times' correspondent in Peking.

PEKING — The visit to China last week by U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger served to underscore the changes that have taken place in relations between China and the two superpowers over the past three years.

During that time, China has clearly and adroitly exploited tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union to its own advantage, placing them in the position of competing for influence in China.

In so doing, China has been successfully carrying out the approach to foreign powers that it has employed over and over again throughout its history. "It behooves us to use barbarians against barbarians," wrote the imperial adviser Wei Yuan more than a century ago.

When Weinberger last came to Peking in 1983, he repeatedly spoke of the importance of what he termed "strategic cooperation" between China and the United States to counter the Soviet Union. He had plausible grounds for making these overtures. Throughout the 1970s, the Soviet Union had been increasing its military forces along its borders with China, and China had increasingly found itself in the position of beseeching the United States to be firmer in its responses to the Soviet Union.

After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979, China and the United States had begun participating in limited forms of military cooperation. Nevertheless, in 1983, the Chinese reacted coolly to Weinberger's talk of "strategic cooperation." Defense Minister Zhang Aiping responded that China "will not attach itself to any big powers."

What had happened to produce China's increasingly independent foreign policy? In an essay several years ago, University of Michigan Sinologist Michel Oksenberg observed, "The Chinese have continually, carefully calibrated the balance of forces in the strategic triangle, and even slight shifts in Soviet-American or Sino-Soviet relations immediately have affected China's posture towards the United States."

During the early 1980s, China reevaluated its foreign policy to take account of the changes in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. China had long been afraid of any major improvement in relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, since such a detente might have left China in an isolated and unprotected position against Soviet military forces and without the technology that it needs for modernization. By the early 1980s, however, China realized that it no longer had to fear cooperation between the superpowers and that, in fact, it had a lot to gain by playing the superpowers off against each other.

Over the past three years, there has been far greater dynamism in China's relations with the Soviet Union than in its relations with the United States. China has been slowly but steadily upgrading its relations with the Soviets. Each step has been a small one, but when viewed over an extended period, the progress has been unmistakable--particularly since Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in March, 1985.

Under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union and China have stepped up the numbers and levels of official visits between the nations and increased cultural exchanges. Trade between the two nations increased by 70% in 1985 over the previous year, to the level of about $1.9 billion annually. The Soviet Union reopened its old consulate in Shanghai, China opened a consulate in Leningrad and the two nations began discussing consulates in other cities.

Last July, Gorbachev made his most concerted effort to date to court China. He pledged to withdraw six regiments from Afghanistan, said his country would consider withdrawing "a substantial part" of its troops from Mongolia along China's northern border and made some small, unilateral concessions in the dispute with China over the Amur River.

Since then, China and Mongolia, a close Soviet ally, have signed a new consular agreement. China and the Soviet Union have agreed to reopen talks, beginning early next year, on their border dispute. And the Chinese Communist Party has started the process of restoring relations with the Communist parties of the Soviet Union's closest allies in Eastern Europe: Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria.

In public, Weinberger and other U.S. officials profess to be in favor of improvements in Sino-Soviet relations, maintaining that they welcome any easing of tensions in Asia. Privately, it is another story.

"Every day when I wake up in the morning, I ask myself two questions: Is Deng Xiaoping still alive, and what are the chances for a Sino-Soviet rapprochement?" one U.S. official directly responsible for China policy said last summer.

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