Great power politics

Allen S. Whiting is one of America's leading experts on the Far East. He has served in the State Department and in the United States office in Hong Kong which watched Chinese affairs before the reopening of US diplomatic relations with China. He keeps close watch on Chinese-Soviet relations now from the University of Michigan.

He has noticed a number of recent incidents in Soviet-Chinese relations. He added them up the other day (May 18) in a column in the New York Times. He concludes that there has been ''mutual probing for Sino-Soviet detente'' for some time. He says ''it can be expected to continue.'' His reading of current Chinese national strategy is as follows:

''China appears to have decided to increase its options by downgrading its relationship with America, improving its relationship with the Soviet Union, and reasserting its role as a third world country.''

This makes sense. There was a time back in the early Nixon period when China badly needed some help from America. The Chinese were getting their first nuclear weapons. The Soviets seriously considered taking military action to destroy China's embryonic nuclear weapons industry. We know this because they sounded out the Nixon people in Washington. The Nixon White House frowned on the idea. The Chinese became a nuclear power.

The Chinese are still far behind both the Soviets and the US in quantity and quality of nuclear weaponry. They have four missiles with a range of perhaps 4, 000 miles and fewer than a hundred with a range of about 2,000 miles. Moscow is just about 2,000 miles from the nearest point in China. The Chinese have a deterrent.

Having missed their chance to take out the Chinese nuclear weapons before China's weapons could reach Moscow, the Soviet attitude toward China changed. Instead of threatening China it began making overtures. It has taken the Chinese a long time to recognize and respond to those overtures. But, if Mr. Whiting is reading the signs correctly (and I am sure he is), China intends to move into the favored position in the US-USSR-China triangle.

From 1972 when President Nixon went to China until now the US held the favored position in the triangle. The sharpest hostility was between China and the Soviets. The US could play one off against the other - so long as it kept on reasonably normal terms with both.

But the situation began to change even during the Carter administration and changed more decisively when the Reagan team came to Washington. Relations between Washington and Moscow deteriorated. A new edge of hostility reminiscent of the earlier ''cold war'' seemed to be developing. During 1981 the degree of friction in US-Soviet relations began to exceed the degree of friction in Sino-Soviet relations.

That change became an obvious opportunity for Peking. If it could get back onto a basis of normal relations with Moscow and keep relations with the US from becoming unfriendly it would then be in the balance-of-power position.

That is precisely what Mr. Whiting sees in the latest incidents in Sino-Soviet relations. He notes that Sino-Soviet technical exchanges have been more active. Trade between them is expected to double. The Chinese Communist Party has resumed friendly relations with the French Communist Party which is loyal to Moscow and would scarcely have made such a move without Moscow approval. And negotiations have been resumed over the boundary between China and Mongolia, a Soviet dependency. But so long as US-Soviet relations are marked by continued US economic and political pressure on the Soviets - the Chinese are presented with what any expert in power politics would view as a golden opportunity.

They need only put a little distance between themselves and Washington, which they have done over the US decision to sell more weapons to Taiwan, ease up on their bristly attitude toward Moscow and, eureka, they are in the balance of power position and able to shift their weight from one side to the other as best serves their purpose at any given moment.

The only way the US can regain its favorable position would be to get back into easier relations with Moscow.

Might this happen? Probably not. President Reagan does want to meet Moscow's Leonid Brezhnev. And Mr. Reagan has made proposals for curbing nuclear weaponry which Mr. Brezhnev regards as a sufficient basis for resuming talks about strategic weapons. But to get back to anything resembling detente as it was known 10 years ago seems unlikely.

There is a triangle and China is one corner. But the US and the USSR are the only true superpowers. Each deeply distrusts the other. That distrust seems likely to endure until or unless other great powers come between them. They were allies in World Wars I and II. But both had common enemies in those wars. Today there are no common enemies to draw them together.

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