THIS is a time for burying hatchets. When Rajiv Gandhi steps off his plane in Peking Sunday, it will be the first time an Indian prime minister will have set foot in China or met with the top Chinese leader in 34 years. Summits do not necessarily solve problems, but they symbolize changing relationships. The central issue between India and China - their border dispute - remains unresolved and is unlikely to be advanced by Mr. Gandhi in conversations with Deng Xiaoping or Chinese premier Li Peng. Having laid out claims, it has become difficult for either one to yield.
The Chinese want ``mutual understanding and accommodation,'' which basically means both sides stop claiming territory occupied by the other and adjust minor differences. The Indians reject this and insist on ``mutual benefit, mutual interest, and mutual acceptability.'' It isn't clear what this means except, as Gandhi said recently, no surrender of any Indian territory. The border talks are stalemated.
Nevertheless, both sides say they are willing to maintain peace along the border until a permanent settlement is worked out. Moreover, India's official position is that it no longer sees a security threat from China. The summit can reaffirm these two positions, set up arrangements to avert new clashes, and agree to continue to talk about the differences. Although they may disagree about where the border is, expanding land trade across the frontier at certain passes is possible, since both understand that local areas will benefit from such trade.
On other bilateral issues there are practical agreements that might be signed - on civil aviation cooperation, science and technology exchanges, and trade. An agreement on reopening consulates may be possible, too. On this last issue, India's suspicion of China is suggested by New Delhi's reluctance to let Peking reopen its former Calcutta office because of its proximity to ethnic unrest in northeastern India and the existence of a strong Communist Party movement in West Bengal.
If the significance of the trip was limited to any of these subjects, it would hardly be worth a second glance. Trade is unlikely to increase substantially. Relations are unlikely to warm up quickly, and security concerns - including Chinese sensitivity about political stability in Tibet, and Indian unease about Sino-Pakistani military cooperation - are unlikely to fade quickly.
The visit is, however, important for a number of broader reasons. First, it is a significant step in gradually easing tensions in Asia. Already, the Soviets are to withdraw from Afghanistan by early 1989, and the Vietnamese to withdraw from Cambodia by early 1990. Relations between North and South Korea may improve going into the 1990s.
Second, from the Soviet viewpoint, it is a key step in smoothing its relations with the two other great Asian land powers. For years, China has seen Soviet-Indian relations as intended to offset Chinese influence, and a key element in easing Sino-Soviet relations is a parallel relaxation of Sino-Indian tensions. As Mikhail Gorbachev said in New Delhi last month, ``Thinking of countries like the Soviet Union, India, and China, one is inevitably led to realize that good relations between them are extremely important for the destinies of Asia and for global progress. We are pleased to see signs of improvement in Indo-Chinese relations.''
Third, strong Chinese support for Pakistan has been a byproduct of Sino-Indian tensions. An improvement, even if only partial, in Sino-Indian relations, coupled with an easing of Pakistani-Soviet relations in the aftermath of Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, will be a factor in evolving power relationships in South Asia, and particularly in prospects for Indian-Pakistani negotiations toward easing subcontinental tensions.
Fourth, it is unlikely that the future holds a new Pan-Asian entente among India, China, and the USSR; it could as easily be said that good relations among the United States, China, and India are equally important. Nevertheless, the India/China, China/Soviet, and Japan/Soviet summits which are already set or which may occur in the coming year represent a significant broadening and diversification of regional and global power relationships.
The US should welcome this, since regional conflict and tension have rarely furthered its global objectives and are invariably both expensive and divisive, and also since the US is still better positioned to work closely with India and China on the key issues of the region - their economies and their security - than the USSR is. But it is going to be an increasingly complex game, with more players pursuing their own specific and regional interests and where US interests may be less clear and sharply defined than in the past.