The evolving shape of the big-power triangle

By , The writer is director of the Research Istitute on International Change at Columbia University.

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

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.

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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.

Until recently, President Reagan's policy toward China had clearly damaged Sino-American relations and accelerated the process of Sino-Soviet rapprochement , though Premier Zhao Ziyang's January visit to the US helped to shore up relations. Chinese leaders have been embarrassed and affronted by America's handling of the Taiwan issue and especially by continued deliveries of military equipment.

Ironically, the consistent hard line maintained in American relations with the Soviet Union - a posture urged by China in the past - now works to distance the Chinese from the US. Reassured by Reagan's strong line against the Soviet Union, China can relax its vigilant warnings about Soviet ''hegemonism.'' Indeed , one can argue, it is an axiom that poor Soviet-American relations draw the Chinese toward the Soviet Union, while good Soviet-American relations draw them closer to the US.

But the Chinese softening of preconditions for normalization with the Soviet Union stems less from specific American policies than from the need for stabilized relations with a less threatening neighbor in order to pursue internal modernization.

Chinese leaders perceive less danger from a Soviet Union beset by domestic and economic difficulties. They expect the phase of retrenchment to persist in Soviet foreign policy. All these considerations strengthen the position of those in the Chinese elite - and especially the Chinese armed forces - who counsel more independence in China's position within the strategic triangle, and criticize excessive leaning toward the US. China's concentration on internal affairs

Difficulties in implementing the ambitious program of reforms in China demand a greater concentration on domestic affairs and a greater need to minimize the danger from the Soviets. Of the ''four modernizations'' - agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense - the Chinese place defense last.

The process of de-Mao-ization in China, the opening of contacts with the West , the difficulties in the industrial sector and the continued success with experimental economic policies have visited on the Chinese with vengeance the dilemma of trade-offs between political interest and economic effectiveness.

Abandonment of old slogans, devolution of economic power, reevaluation of the past, uncertain plans for the future - all heighten the anxiety among leaders and bureaucracies that they will lose control over the population, particularly the youth and intelligentsia. They are seeking a new ideological compass by which to indoctrinate the people and strengthen authoritarian control.

In this regard, the West constitutes a greater danger than the Soviet Union.

As a matter of fact, China is becoming more interested in certain phases of Soviet historical development. The process of post-Mao evolution has many elements in common with both the Soviet period of the New Economic Plan in the 1920s and the post-Stalin experience.

If in the autumn of 1982 Soviet specialists were stressing the slowness of the reconciliation process and its limited effect on the strategic Soviet-Chinese-American triangle, in the spring of 1983 they were arguing that the process would be quicker and broader than earlier anticipated.

Chinese specialists have consistently cautioned Westerners against underestimating the difficulties of the reconciliation process and overestimating its likely extent. If the Chinese wished not to endanger their American connection, the Soviets wished to bring home the dangers of Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union by flaunting the likely payoff of speedy and successful negotiations with the PRC.

In fact, the movement toward normalization is taking place neither as fast as the Soviets, nor as slowly as the Chinese, would have us believe.

Western policymakers and analysts are prone to exaggerate the likely consequences of Sino-Soviet reconciliation and its susceptibility to Western influence. But if one cannot predict the detailed progression of the rapprochement, one can be quite certain about its limits.

Normalization will certainly end the reciprocal vilification in the press; stimulate scientific, educational, cultural, and athletic exchange; reduce the isolation of accredited diplomats; reinstate Chinese relations with pro-Moscow communist parties; and, more important, expand trade, perhaps even substantially.

Eventually, a Sino-Soviet agreement could produce mutual troop reductions along the border and a nonaggression treaty might be signed. The limits of reconciliation

But the consequences of the normalization process should not be exaggerated.

Normalization will bring no Sino-Soviet political or military alliance, not even detente. Nor will it bring restoration of friendly relations between the two Communist Parties. Normalization will lessen tensions, but it will not erase Chinese suspicions of Soviet hostility to Chinese ambitions. It will not deter Chinese efforts to reach agreement with Japan on issues of defense and trade. Finally, the PRC will perpetuate Sino-Soviet tensions in the third world by opposing Soviet ''hegemonist'' expansion there.

Normalization of Sino-Soviet relations would not alter certain cardinal facts of the Sino-Soviet-American triangle. The Soviet Union and China remain potential enemies, whose security is measured only in relation to the other's weakness. The Soviet Union is a present and future danger to China, while the Chinese will continue to fear little and gain much from a US that remains hostile to the Soviets. Regardless of normalization, the Soviet Union aims to prevent or delay China's attainment of great-power status. Prejudice and fear govern Soviet relations with a country which shares a border of 6,000 kilometers (about 3,700 miles), contains the largest population in the world (more than 1 billion), and possesses the will and resources to reclaim its historic greatness.

Normalization will not obviate the need to keep one-third of Soviet armed forces and one-quarter of Soviet rocket forces opposite China. Nor will it relieve Soviet military and economic planners of the necesssity to plan for 2 1/ 2 wars. Nor will it facilitate the more central Soviet goals of destroying the Western alliance or restoring a semblance of detente with the US.

Normalization will strengthen China's position in the strategic triangle, but it will not secure China a place equidistant from both partners. China's position in the triangle will remain skewed in favor of the US. Sino-American relations will remain closer than either Sino-Soviet or Soviet-American relations. The US remains the pivotal country in the triangle and derives the most advantage from it.

What China is now doing is simply trying to improve its position in the triangle without at the same time strengthening the Soviet position vis-a-vis the US.

The content of Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's policy toward China in no way differs from that of Leonid Brezhnev in his last years. But it has a new urgency and flexibility that is rooted in the disintegration of the Soviet-American detente, the threatening US military buildup, and the potentially more threatening Japanese military presence.

By the end of the 1970s, the Soviet Union began to see itself not only as the object of unfriendly encirclements, both capitalist and communist. It also began to exaggerate the growth of the Western and Eastern components of the encirclements. Mr. Andropov's energetic effort to accelerate the rapprochement with China is as much an effort to break out of this acutely felt encirclement as is his policy to divide the US from its West European allies. The illusory 'China card'

As for China, the process of normalization represents merely another, if significant, expression of how its leaders regard their national interests. The process has an internal and profound dynamic, neither sparked nor guided to any real degree by the US. If Mr. Reagan's policies toward the PRC have had an impact on the direction of Sino-Soviet rapprochement, they certainly do not explain it.

Former officials of the Carter administration accuse Reagan of losing ''our China card,'' thereby perpetuating vain illusions and a shortsighted manipulative approach to relations with China.

Recently, a high-level Soviet Sinologist privately observed:

''It may be that American analysts, when delving into Chinese policy changes, may be making the same mistake we made in the 1940s when the Chinese revolution triumphed. We expected that China for many years would become a strategic ally of the Soviet Union in matters of foreign policy. We paid rather dearly for these hopes. They cost us a lot.''

Now, on another level, the United States has done more or less the same thing. . . . I think it was . . . a mistake for the US to believe that China could become a long-term ally of the US. I think a more realistic view on either side must convince us of one very important element: that on this globe a great power has appeared, with its own interests, with its own strategic considerations. . . .

''At present, we have a sort of bipolar idea that two great powers more or less guide the destiny of the world. This is true if you think of the balance of forces, but we should not forget that soon the Chinese leaders will burst upon the world arena as a third superpower.

''We may disagree as to whether that is possible soon or not. Whether China will achieve such power is another question. We may see it in our own way, but the fact that China wishes it is something else. This is the motive force of Chinese policy. This is why it has distanced itself from the US and comes closer to us,'' the Soviet specialist on China concluded.

The United States would be well-advised to forget about the ''China card.'' It should be satisfied that there exists an independent China which by its very existence, its geographical location, its historical attitude toward Russia, its military power, and its experience with the Soviet leadership provides an important obstacle to the expansionist plan of America's main adversary, the Soviet Union.

The US should be aware that it can influence China's attitudes and actions only in a very limited way. The truth is, the US never had a ''China card'' to lose.

Contradictory pressures on the Soviets.

From the mid-1970s, the Soviet Union has been expanding externally while declining internally. At present, contradictory pressures vastly complicate the policy choices of Soviet leaders.

On the one hand, the magnitude of domestic difficulties demands urgent and concentrated attention. On the other hand, the international environment offers sterling opportunities for the expansion of Soviet power and influence.

The USSR's internal decline will surely continue or even accelerate during the remainder of the 1980s. The desire to translate new Soviet global military power into international influence may heighten the risk of Soviet intervention in the world's most troubled regions. The key question of Mr. Andropov's succession remains as yet unanswered. What will be the major direction of Soviet efforts: toward the resolution of problems within the Soviet empire, or the energetic pursuit of external advantage?The US and its Western allies have opportunities in this decade, much greater than those in the last, to influence Soviet international behavior. The combination of circumstances within and without the Soviet Union encourages prospects for reducing the virulence of the inevitable conflict between East and West.

The Soviet Union will be more amenable to serious negotiations at a time when it is preoccupied with domestic and imperial problems, when it contemplates the escalating costs of a new arms race, when Kremlin succession has interrupted the inertial drift of Soviet policies, and when Soviet leaders are learning that there is no substitute for better relations with the US.

The principal question for this decade is not what the Soviet leader will do. It is what the US and the Western alliance will do, for on their choices will largely depend the policies of Moscow's decisionmakers.

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