Peking — In the last 2,000 years Sino-Japanese relations have scarcely been closer.
Relations between the two countries have come a long way since the late 1960s , when the late Premier Chou En-lai told James Reston of The New York Times that China and the United States must cooperate to prevent the revival of Japanese militarism.
The latest sign of this: Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang has just concluded a weeklong visit to Japan (May 31 to June 6), and Japanese Premier Zenko Suzuki will visit China in September.
Chinese television has given extensive daily coverage of the Zhao visit, from a meeting with Emperor Hirohito to a ride on the Tokyo subway, and a walk through the exquisite garden of Katsura Palace in Kyoto.
Today, ironically, it is Sino-American relations which have soured, while Sino-Japanese relations flourish. One purpose of Mr. Zhao's visit, aside from celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese friendship treaty, was to get across this message: Whatever may happen in Sino-American relations over the issue of US arms sales to Taiwan, Peking's political, economic, and cultural ties with Japan should continue to be strengthened and deepened on a long-term basis.
Mr. Zhao has also encouraged the Japanese to maintain their own close ties with the US, saying, ''the development of Sino-American Japanese relations does not run counter to the promotion of Japanese-American ties.''
If the quarrel with Washington over the latter's refusal so far to end arms sales to Taiwan results in the downgrading of diplomatic relations between Peking and Washington, the Chinese do not want their ties with other Western countries to suffer. Even though China has taken to berating both superpowers over the arms race, Peking does not want Western countries to forget that the chief threat to world peace comes from Soviet expansionism.
Some analysts have interpreted criticism of the US as indicating a Chinese move away from the US toward a position equally critical of Moscow and Washington. But an analysis of Mr. Zhao's conversations with Mr. Suzuki shows that China continues to oppose Soviet ''hegemonism.''
Mr. Zhao, like his mentor Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, is a strong promoter of economic cooperation with Western countries to modernize China. Japan is the most important member of the Western camp with which China seeks long-term, stable economic cooperation. Obviously Peking wishes to intensify this kind of cooperation, whatever happens in Sino-American relations.
But the Chinese have another motive that relates particularly to Japan. These islanders are Western in terms of living standards and of economic and political organization. But they have preserved their own traditional society and way of life to a remarkable degree.
In ancient cultural centers such as Kyoto, Mr. Zhao may have found assurance that the best of the past, a past which owes much to China, can be preserved without being overwhelmed by the assertive comforts of the West.