The Beijing Summit's Promise

IN the past, d'etente between China and the Soviet Union might have been viewed as bad news by many in the West. Better to have them divided and feuding. That perception has changed, replaced by the recognition that some good could come from this week's Sino-Soviet summit in Beijing, the first in 30 years.

Working together, the Chinese and Soviets can exert a positive influence on such trouble spots as Cambodia. The Soviets, urged on by the Chinese, have already helped persuade their ally, Vietnam, to begin withdrawing from Cambodia. China could advance prospects for peace by reining in its bellicose client, the Khmer Rouge.

After years of tension and occasional combat, both China and the Soviet Union have begun trimming back the military buildup along their long common border. China, however, would like to see a much more substantial dismantling of Soviet forces on its northern border, as well as a pullout of Soviet naval strength from Vietnam to the south.

The lessening of friction with China goes hand in hand with Mikhail Gorbachev's plans to draw down Soviet forces in Europe. The Soviet Union and China share an inclination to move away from costly military commitments and concentrate on economic reform.

Reform is bound to be a major topic of discussion between Mr. Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping. Moscow's disciples of perestroika have looked on with interest, and perhaps a little envy, as China's reformers have pushed economic innovation beyond what has yet proved possible in the Soviet Union. The men from Moscow are particularly intrigued by China's successes in luring foreign investors. They're probably equally interested in China's agonies with price reform and inflation. Doubtless, lots of notes will be exchanged.

Reform gives the countries a new basis for cooperation. Each has an interest in seeing the other's economic restructuring prosper. Efforts to expand their growing, but still relatively small, bilateral trade will intensify.

When reform turns to politics, Gorbachev and Mr. Deng may not see eye to eye. The Soviets are pushing ahead with democratization, holding elections and unshackling speech. The Chinese have held back, fearing social instability and loss of control. Beijing's irrepressible student demonstrators have forced the democracy issue before China's leaders in recent weeks, however.

Both countries are being transformed from within. This doesn't mean they're leaving communism behind; Gorbachev and Deng remain committed to preserving that system, if in retooled form. It does mean that tranquillity between the communist superpowers won't have the same cast it would have had back in the '50s, at the height of the cold war.

How will Soviet-Chinese d'etente fit with and complement the lessening of East-West tensions? What kind of new trade and economic ties are likely, particularly in the Pacific region? Such questions indicate a need to seek out opportunity, rather than recoil in apprehension.

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