Despite intense efforts by Washington to draw Peking into a Sino-American strategic alliance, there are increasing indications the People's Republic of China has concluded that joining the United States in an anti-Soviet entente with NATO and Japan might not be in China's best interests. Instead, the PRC appears to be opting for a major leadership role within the third world.
From Peking's perspective, an independent policy rejecting alignment with either superpower makes very good sense.
For one thing, as long as China pursues moderate economic and political policies, the US will continue to promote friendly relations. The PRC leadership can thus count on the opening of further trade opportunities and the extension of technological and other forms of economic assistance. Where its interests coincide with those of the West, Peking will cooperate.
One such area of mutual concern is China's security against a devastating Soviet nuclear attack. The PRC has developed a minimal nuclear deterrent of its own. But of far greater importance is the fact that the US cannot stand idly by while China is destroyed. As long as Peking is not allied with Moscow, China provides an essential counterweight to the Soviet Union in East Asia and must be preserved by the West at almost any cost.
In addition to ensuring China's survival, an independent foreign policy by Peking would create an environment conducive to improved relations with Moscow. A lessening of tensions between the two communist countries would make possible the negotiation of outstanding issues such as the demarcation of the Sino-Soviet border and the drawback of frontier forces. In a less threatening atmosphere the Soviet Union might also be less enthusiastic about outmaneuvering the PRC in Indochina, Korea, India, Afghanistan, and other Asian rimland nations - a development which would be in US interests as well.
A policy of nonalignment is essential if Peking is to fulfill its ambition to be the leader of the third world. By avoiding identification with either bloc, the PRC might well become one of the chief spokesmen for developing countries seeking a new international economic order and relief from perceived exploitation by both ''hegemonists'' and ''imperialists.''
Although disconcerting to some Western strategists who see US-PRC strategic cooperation as the best way to counter the growing Soviet threat, a more independent policy by Peking might stabilize conditions in East Asia far more than an alliance between the world's most powerful democracy and its most populous communist state.
Bilaterally, Sino-American relations would be encouraged along historical lines, especially the many cultural and economic ties between the two peoples. Divisive issues such as Taiwan's reunification with the mainland could safely be left on the back burner until an equitable solution devised by the Chinese themselves evolved.
Regionally, most of our Asian friends would welcome a change in Sino-American relations away from an emphasis on containment of Soviet military expansion to a concern with China's modernization and its future role in the Pacific Basin Community.
It is essential that we correctly perceive Peking's intentions. China will never accept a role as junior partner in a strategic alliance against the USSR. The Chinese will, however, use our desire for such cooperation to gain as many concessions as possible from both our leaders and those of the Soviet Union.
Like any nation, the PRC pursues its own interests. As we have seen, those interests might well lie in a foreign policy carefully poised between the superpowers. Now is the time for the US to recognize this fact and adjust its China policy accordingly.