The emergence of a new leader in any one of the major power centers of the world inevitably opens up the possibility of change in relationships of the power centers. This week the Chinese joined the United States in exploring the possibility that Mikhail Gorbechev may, or may not, want to change in some subtle ways the relationships that prevailed with little change from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979.
A Chinese delegation arrived in Moscow Sunday to open the sixth round of half-yearly talks which date from 1982. This follows a series of assertions in both Moscow and Peking of a mutual interest in seeking more ``normal'' relations with each other.
The Chinese began the verbal exchanges at the time of the Chernenko funeral in Moscow on March 11. They underlined their interest in easier relations this week with a press conference in Peking at which Chinese Communist Party secretary Hu Yaobang refrained from spelling out the ``three obstacles'' which the Chinese identify as standing in the way of a resumption of formal diplomatic relations between the two largest communist countries.
The ``obstacles'' are large Soviet forces on the Chinese frontier, Soviet support for the regime in Vietnam, and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The difference this week is that Mr. Hu declined to spell out the obstacles. By implication, the Chinese want to find out in what areas Mr. Gorbachev really wants an improvement in Sino-Soviet relations.
Chinese behavior in this matter follows US behavior. US Vice-President George Bush was at the Chernenko funeral, just as was Chinese Vice-Premier Li Peng. Both told Mr. Gorbachev their respective countries wanted improved relations with Moscow. President Reagan followed up the Bush statement in Moscow by proposing a personal meeting with the new Soviet leader.
In this business the US is well ahead of the Chinese. The Chinese have not proposed any Sino-Soviet ``summit.'' In fact they are not even at the point of having resident ambassadors in each other's capitals.
Obviously, the Chinese will not want to be left behind if there is to be any substantive easing in US-Soviet relations. The Chinese, as did the NATO allies in Europe, watched with some anxiety back in 1973 at the peak of Richard Nixon's ``d'etente.'' While all welcomed the reduction in hostility in the US-Soviet relationship, the others thought it might be going too far.
There is no reason yet to think that the new explorations between Moscow and Washington are likely to be going ``too far'' this time.
The week also witnessed Washington touching the brakes. The White House let it be known that it is not interested in a mere ``get acquainted'' type of Gorbachev-Reagan summit. The word was that the President wanted to be sure that ``substantive'' matters would be on the agenda before deciding on date and place for the meeting.
On Wednesday, however, national security adviser Robert McFarlane said that Reagan and Gorbachev could meet this year even if a full-fledged summit were not possible. Also, the State Department announced that Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko will meet in Vienna on May 14.
In Geneva, the Soviets pulled a propaganda stunt out of the arms control talks. Tass announced that Moscow has ``frozen'' deployment of SS-20 missiles in the European theater. Any change in weapons deployment is a subject for the Geneva talks. Participants have agreed to keep the talks confidential. It was a departure from strict observance of the rules to make the announcement.
One presumes that Moscow did it to try to score a credit in the eyes of Europeans, some of whom were busy demonstrating against nuclear missiles during their Easter holiday. The Soviets' standard propaganda line is that they are ``peace lovers'' whereas the Americans are ``warmongers.'' In other words, Moscow has not given up its propaganda campaign against Washington just because it is groping toward a Reagan-Gorbachev summit. Reports out of Washington also suggest that Moscow is developing a new version of the SS-20 that would not be affected by the freeze.
The key question, of course, is whether Gorbachev actually wants to revise the power pattern of the world as it existed at the time he assumed the top post in Moscow.
In his fantasy moments he probably dreams of weaning Western Europe, China, and Japan away from the US. But a genuine arms control agreement with the US would have to come first (to prove his peaceful intentions toward everyone). And he would probably also have to back out of Afghanistan and tone down the Soviet presence in Vietnam and in Central America.
In other words, progress, even in US-Soviet ties, is going to be slow. But Gorbachev does have his little helpers. Resolutions in the Congress in Washington call for US reprisals against Japan for Japanese trade barriers. Japan is not only Washington's best friend in Asia, it is also an important military base.
The Marcos regime in the Philippines is increasingly unsteady and unpopular. Unless Marcos hands over to moderate successors in good time, he could be toppled by anti-American political elements. Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base are main US military installations in the Philippines. If use of them were lost, air and sea bases in Japan would be indispensable to the US military position in the Far East. It may become more so soon. We may be sure that Gorbachev is grateful for every anti-Japanese word and gesture in Congress.