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Regional Outlook : Together Again ? : China and the Soviet Union are not restoring their 1950s alliance. But trade talks and a proposed summit seem to signal the start of genuine good neighborliness.

March 19, 1991|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — China and the Soviet Union, looking toward a probable mid-May summit in Moscow, are busy with quiet steps aimed at building a new relationship of cooperation and friendship.

In one sign of how old tensions are fading away, talks are under way on possible sales to China of Soviet jet fighters and other military equipment or technology.

Many Soviet troops have been pulled back from the 4,500-mile Sino-Soviet border in the last two years. Trade is expanding. Beijing is offering consumer goods to the Soviet Union on credit. In return, Moscow is expected to provide technical and financial help for construction of a nuclear power plant in China. Leaders of both countries speak of shared socialist values.

The two Communist nations are not restoring their alliance of the 1950s, when they stood together in hostile confrontation with the West. But they are firmly putting behind them the tense decades of the 1960s and 1970s, a period that saw fierce ideological disputes and bloody border clashes. Building on the restoration of normal relations marked by the 1989 visit of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev to Beijing, they seem to be moving into a decade of genuine good neighborliness.

The proposed summit between Gorbachev and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin is meant to endorse and accelerate this warming trend. Although specific plans for Jiang's trip to Moscow have yet to be announced, Western and Soviet diplomats in Beijing expect the summit in May. Soviet Embassy spokesman Yuri Lyssenko said the Soviet side has suggested May 15-17. Jiang would be the highest-ranking Chinese leader to visit Moscow since Chairman Mao Tse-tung went there in 1957.

Before Jiang's trip, "A lot of delegations from the Soviet Union will arrive in Beijing, and we will discuss important things," Lyssenko said. Trade, atomic energy and aircraft are among the items up for discussion, he said.

The U.S. government, which expressed equanimity about the 1989 summit between Gorbachev and senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, continues to view the warming of Sino-Soviet ties without alarm.

"I don't think there's a whole lot of concern," said a U.S. diplomat in Beijing, who spoke on condition that he not be named. "We don't see it as against our interests to see them improve their relationship, especially as both of them are concerned (with improving) their relations with the United States."

Relations with the United States are immensely important to China and the Soviet Union. But a perception of revitalized American influence in the world, bolstered by the quick victory of the U.S.-led multinational forces in the Gulf War, contributes to the interest Beijing and Moscow have in reaching out to each other. Leaders in both countries also can see domestic political benefits from improved Sino-Soviet ties.

"The Soviet side is waiting for General Secretary Jiang Zemin's visit to the Soviet Union," Vladimir Ivashko, deputy general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, said to the official New China News Agency during a recent visit here. "We shall welcome and receive him with warmth. I believe that the summit between Gorbachev and Jiang will be a new pushing force to the development of Soviet-Chinese relations, leading such relations to a new stage."

A Western diplomat in Beijing, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that more than a year ago, as communism collapsed in Eastern Europe and Gorbachev promoted domestic political reforms, China's leaders viewed Soviet policies as presenting "a very dangerous and unsettling" model.

In some ways, because it involved reform of a socialist society, the Soviet example was even more threatening to China's hard-line leaders than Western models of democratic capitalism, this diplomat said. Some internal Chinese documents, which are restricted to circulation only inside the Communist Party or government, even started referring to Gorbachev as a counterrevolutionary, he noted.

"I think over the past six months they have seen him at least coming somewhat back toward 'the socialist road,' " he added. "They can say that Gorbachev himself admits he made mistakes, admits he went too fast, he has to retrench. And Gorbachev has shown himself determined to keep the union together."

Meanwhile, "The biggest threat to stability in China, from the leadership's position, is the United States--its leadership, its ideals, its model," this diplomat said. Thus, he said, China now has "a smoother, more friendly relationship" with the Soviet Union than with the United States.

U.S. sanctions against any military sales to China, imposed in response to the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, remain in place, while Moscow and Beijing have begun exchanging visits of military delegations.

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