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The evolving shape of the big-power triangle

By Seweryn Bialer, Special to The Christian Science MonitorThe writer is director of the Research Istitute on International Change at Columbia University. / January 27, 1984

Joseph Stalin bequeathed to his successors the concept of the dread ''capitalist encirclement,'' which became the wellspring of Soviet military and foreign policy.

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Fear of capitalist encirclement has receded somewhat with the growth of Soviet power since Stalin. But another set of problems has become at least as central to Soviet policymaking - the problems of ''communist encirclement.''

This second kind of encirclement may be envisaged as four concentric arcs at different spatial and political distances from vital Soviet interests.

The first arc encompasses the Soviet ''internal empire,'' the belt of non-Russian ''republics'' dominating the periphery of the USSR. The second includes the Soviet ''external empire,'' the East European nations. The third holds China, the colossus risen from an authentic revolution to provide a long-range threat on the Soviet eastern border. The fourth arc collects those remains of a once-cohesive international movement dominated from Moscow, the many communist parties which now exhibit a troublesome autonomy.

This article will focus on the challenge of China, the third arc.

Soviet leaders have encountered the greatest risks and costs of communist encirclement in the outer arc of their empire. The Soviet Union's estrangement from China began in the early 1960s. Since then, the Soviets have deployed against their once-loyal communist ally vast quantities of men and materiel along thousands of miles of eastern and southeastern borders with China. Soviet military planners have had to make complex preparations for war on two fronts.

Since 1979, however, the virulence of the conflict between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC) has been abating. Both sides have quietly, cautiously, and slowly moved toward normalization of state relations. Before long, if nothing like another Afghanistan intervenes, they will probably achieve a degree of rapprochement that would have seemed highly unlikely to most informed observers just a few years ago.

Signs of Sino-Soviet rapprochement proliferate, recalling early steps in the Sino-American reconciliation in the early 1970s. There are conversations among diplomats and exchanges of journalists, scholars, and athletes.

There are the adjustments on both sides in ideological formulations of their respective interests. There is the scaling-down of the propaganda war. There are reevaluations of Western policies and restatements of the preconditions for serious negotiations. Some limited negotiations have started. Reasons for Sino-Soviet rapprochement

If these signs have yet to produce striking results, the mood on both sides heralds major improvements in relations.

That the process of normalization has begun owes its primary stimulus to shifts in Chinese attitudes and policy orientations. The Chinese have publicly revised their ideological formulations. The United States has lately joined the excoriated Soviet Union as a ''hegemonic'' superpower. The Soviet party-state is criticized with less vituperation than before.

Most important, China has gradually moderated its three preconditions for serious negotiations and improved relations: Vietnamese withdrawal from Kampu-chea (Cambodia), Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Soviet reduction of forces on the Chinese border together with total withdrawal from Mongolia.

Following two years of cautious modification, the Chinese position now appears to be that serious negotiations can begin if only the Soviet Union shows willingness to embark on the road to partial fulfillment of any of the preconditions.

Why has China so shifted its policy, especially in the last three years? The answers lie in the Chinese evaluation of their domestic situation, the balance within the Sino-Soviet-American triangle, and the changing international environment.