Kremlin finds it has to fall back on ping-pong diplomacy

The Kremlin seems to have set aside hopes for quick rapprochement with China in favor of a more gradual approach involving, among other things, a Soviet version of Richard Nixon's ''ping-pong diplomacy.''

Moscow has, meanwhile, been issuing periodic public pronouncements of willingness to patch up the Sino-Soviet split. Yet the most recent such statement, appearing in Pravda May 20, seemed partly an acknowledgment that prospects for an early healing were dim.

In late March President Leonid Brezhnev chose a period of evident strain between China and the United States to soften Soviet rhetoric toward Peking slightly and state: ''We are prepared to come to terms, without any preliminary conditions, on measures acceptable to both sides to improve Soviet-Chinese relations. . . .''

His speech followed China's rejection of various more discreet overtures. Subsequent private comments from a senior Soviet official interviewed by the Monitor suggested that the Brezhnev remarks were a water-testing exercise aimed to strengthen less pro-Western elements within the Chinese hierarchy.

The public response from Peking has been relatively cool, to the effect the Soviets must signal good intentions with deeds, not just words. The authoritative Pravda piece, although more gently worded than a commentary by the same writer a year ago, was tougher than Brezhnev's remarks.

It says: ''It was stated in Peking that the Chinese side . . . would judge the position of the USSR by 'practical deeds.' But when it comes to 'practical deeds,' the leaders of the People's Republic of China are making a whole range of preliminary demands which the USSR must meet before any Soviet-Chinese talks (can) begin. . . . When Peking makes obviously unacceptable preliminary conditions as 'payment' for the possible improvement of relations, this cannot be viewed as anything short of a show of unwillingness to normalize Soviet-Chinese relations.''

The lengthy Pravda piece proceeded to charge that ''Sino-centric and hegemonistic ambitions still prevail'' in Peking. But the article repeated a point in Mr. Brezhnev's March speech suggesting a more gradual Soviet approach. The Kremlin was deemed ready to agree ''on any measures . . . to improve Soviet-Chinese relations,'' including not just political accords, but ''economic , scientific, cultural'' ones.

In recent months, Soviet proposals for reopened talks on the thorny Sino-Soviet frontier dispute have been coupled with overtures in less controversial areas. A partial scorecard assembled from Asian-service reports on Soviet radio outlets:

* ''On Dec. 16, 1981, our country's Foreign Ministry presented a statement to the (Chinese) embassy proposing resumption of contacts for scientific and technical cooperation and, on an equal basis, the exchange of one or two groups of experts. . . .''

As of early March, according to Moscow radio's Chinese-language service, ''The USSR has yet to receive any answer.'' There has been no indication this has changed.

* Also in March, ''three noted Chinese economists'' arrived in Moscow ''to study the USSR's economic system.'' They stayed at least 10 days, visited various research institutes and government bureaus, and met a deputy chairman of the state economic planning board.

* In late March Chinese gymnasts accepted an invitation to an international competition in Moscow. A recent Soviet radio report said: ''Soviet athletes will take part in international competitions in Peking in June.''

Given the overall political climate, diplomats here term it unlikely that this ''ping-pong diplomacy,'' Soviet-style, will yield rapid or momentous results. But they expect the Kremlin will pursue a gradual expansion of nonpolitical contacts in hopes of bettering the atmosphere for tackling thornier problems.

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