RAJIV GANDHI'S presence in Peking last week was another indication of the reach of Gorbachev's ``restructuring.'' The Soviet leader's vigorous efforts to reestablish ties with China have shaken up long-held assumptions in south Asia. They provided the immediate impetus for Mr. Gandhi's trip to what had been the enemy's capital. But better relations with China are something many Indians have been contemplating for a long time. In the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi's grandfather, the two giants of Asia had been fraternal neighbors. That era ended with violent Himalayan border clashes in the early '60s. A brief war in 1962 left India humiliated.
China became an ally of Pakistan, India's perennial adversary. The leaders in New Delhi, concurrently, strengthened their ties with the Soviets. And the two communist colossi battled between themselves.
This pattern of alliances and conflicts is coming undone - a development that creates consternation for the present, but could lead to greater harmony in the region in the long run as animosities subside. Gandhi, unwilling to simply wait for the traditional big powers to act, is asserting India's ability to drive events on its own. He'd particularly like to hasten the loosening of the China-Pakistan relationship. But at the same time he'd like to put India's own relations with Pakistan on a less hostile footing. That country's new leader, Benazir Bhutto, has similar desires. The two meet later this week at a gathering of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.
Beyond its foreign policy goals, Gandhi's journey to Peking could have political benefits back home. The Prime Minister and his Congress Party face stiff opposition in some parts of India, with elections due next year. Diplomatic initiatives can help build an image of decisive leadership. But as regards China, they also carry risks. Compromise on the territorial issue is seen as politically unpopular in India. So Gandhi has to pursue the palatable gains of friendly talk with the Chinese, expansion of trade and cultural contacts, and exchange of consulates while laying a groundwork for possible later settlement of the sensitive border question. Gandhi and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping parted with a pledge of friendship and a commitment to work out differences.
India's aspirations to big power status of its own has been seen recently in its assumption of the peacemaker role in Sri Lanka and in the Maldives - as well as in its building of a bigger navy. Its desire to be the dominant power in an important region of the world fits into a larger picture of global reorientation that includes a unifying Europe, weakening Soviet hegemony, surging economic strength in the Far East, and diminishing American preeminence. India's strategy bears watching.