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Asia jigsaw: China and USSR may shift pieces

By Paul Quinn-JudgeSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 24, 1982

Bangkok, Thailand

Ever since talks between Peking and Moscow started, an unusual phenomenon has been taking place in Hanoi: Chinese Embassy officials have been phoning their Russian counterparts for ''warm, friendly chats'' - on phone lines they feel sure are bugged.

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Outwardly the Vietnamese show no concern at these unsubtle tactics, diplomats based in Hanoi say. Peking's interest in better relations with Moscow, the Vietnamese argue, shows that China is disillusioned with the ''American card.''

Privately, however, Vietnam's friends say Hanoi is worried. Vietnam's main supporter, the Soviet Union, is after all talking to Hanoi's archenemy, China.

''Perhaps,'' an Asian diplomat said, ''the Chinese and even the Russians have already achieved most of their aims.

''They have created the image - helped by the media - that a rapprochement between their two countries is after all possible. They've forced the US to stop taking the Sino-Soviet split for granted, and they've probably improved their bargaining positions vis-a-vis Washington.''

Fallout from the talks in other Asian countries has taken mostly the form of speculation. For south and north Asian countries, tend to have a fairly wide network of international relationships, the speculation has been relaxed, almost academic.

Southeast Asian countries on both sides of the Kampuchean (Cambodian) conflict have, however, followed the talks with more interest and concern. Both sides pin a lot of hopes in the support of one or the other of the big Communist powers. Both sides could therefore be directly affected by the outcome of the talks.

Many Asians seem skeptical about China's three conditions for improving relations: that tension on the Sino-Soviet border be lessened; a solution found for Afghanistan; and the Vietnamese be pressured to pull out of Kampuchea. China's party general secretary, Hu Yaobang, has already said that progress on just one condition would be enough to get the ball rolling, and Chinese diplomats based in Asian countries are telling visitors that the key to improved relations is ''the Soviets proving that they are good neighbors.''

''I think you'll find in the long run that the Soviets and the Chinese will agree to disagree on Afghanistan and Cambodia,'' one Japanese observer remarked. ''The border condition is so much easier to solve.''

The Chinese announcement Dec. 16 that Kampuchea was the main obstacle to detente with Moscow tends to be interpreted here as a bargaining tactic rather than a reversal of Chinese priorities.

Most south Asian countries are in any case slowly moving away from heavy reliance on a single major power for their security. They are learning ''from hard experience,'' a South Asian says, that diversification in external relations is vital.

Pakistan, under Zia ul-Haq, for example, is very close to China, and is in the process of receiving a big military aid package from Peking's would-be ally, the US. But Zia still keeps up good relations with Moscow and was delighted by his 40-minute conversation with Yuri Andropov at Leonid Brezhnev's funeral.

''He was pleased not just by the flexibility he felt Andropov was showing,'' commented a diplomat, ''but by the attention Andropov was showing him.''

Zia, another observer remarked, would like a solution in Afghanistan but is also very keen to keep communications open with Moscow, whatever happens. ''His troop deployments show you what he's really worried about,'' said a South Asian diplomat. ''He has two divisions on the Afghan frontier and 17 on the Indian border.''