China's most important task in the next two decades is to achieve modernization of the economy - or, to achieve a comfortable standard of living by Chinese standards.
This is what Chairman Deng Xiaoping, the ebullient ''core'' of Chinese collective leadership, told a group of Japanese visitors this week as Peking's Foreign Minister Huang Hua was in Moscow attending President Brezhnev's funeral and holding talks with Soviet leaders.
Mr. Deng's remark, relayed by Japanese sources, puts Sino-Soviet relations in the context of China's own most urgent priority - to achieve a reasonably decent standard of living for its billion people within the next two decades.
China is at the same time a big country and a small country, Deng told his visitors from Japan's Socialist Party Nov 16. Big, he said, by such measurements as territory, population and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Small because its billion people enjoyed a per capita income of only $250 to $260 a year. Out of more than 150 countries in the UN, China doesn't even come within the first 100 in terms of per capita income, though it is a little better off than India, Deng said.
Thus China's economy was still very backward. China's leaders had set a goal of quadrupling production within 20 years, Mr. Deng said. By world standards this was a modest goal, for it would mean at most an income of $1,000 per capita. Because of continued population growth, Mr. Deng feared that even this figure was unattainable, and that $800 was a more realistic target.
But even $800 per capita could not be achieved without a determined, all-out national effort. When the Communists came to power 30 years ago, China was still subject to famine. If the goal of economic modernization is achieved in the next 20 years, it would mean that, 50 years after the establishment of the Peoples' Republic, China would have become a ''fairly developed Socialist country'' and would be in a state of ''xiao kang,'' that is, not of being rich, but of being comfortably or relatively well off.
China's leaders frequently enunciate their three goals for the next 20 years as being: first, to modernize the country; second, to oppose hegemonism; and third, to unite Taiwan with the mainland.
But to his Japanese visitors, Mr. Deng stressed that the first goal was the most important. It would permanently remove the Chinese people from starvation or famine level. Not only would this benefit the Chinese people, it would also be ''our contribution to mankind.
As for Sino-Soviet relations, Mr. Deng said it was important to overcome three ''obstacles.'' China was waiting to see what the Soviet attitude would be.
(The three obstacles repeatedly cited by Chinese leaders are: first, ''one million Soviet troops'' along the Sino-Soviet border; second, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; and third, Soviet support for Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea. All these obstacles, Mr. Deng said, constitute a direct threat to China.)
On Nov. 18, two days after Deng's remarks to the Japanese, Huang Hua returned to Peking to tell newsmen that he had talked with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko about ''ways of removing obstacles and promoting consultations. . . so as to achieve progress on substantive matters.
''Leaders of the two countries attach importance to these consultations,'' Huang said, adding that he was ''optimistic'' about the outlook for the consultations.
There's no hint either in Huang's remarks or Deng's, of reviving the military and political alliance China used to have with Moscow. Nor did Mr. Deng make any direct correlation between the urgency of economic modernization and the normalization of Sino-Soviet ties.
In the future, as in the past, China's attitude towards the Washington and Moscow will be determined by the specific circumstances. For the time being, China's own domestic goals have the highest priority, both for the leadership and for China's people.