China is making its first major sortie into Eastern Europe in more than 20 years. Last week, Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang touched down in Romania and Yugoslavia. Romania is the only member of the Soviet bloc to have maintained substantial political and economic ties with Peking during China's long rift with Moscow.
Mr. Hu is returning official visits to China by Romanian and Yugoslav leaders in the past year. And he is following in the footsteps of former Chinese Chairman Hua Guofeng, who went to Bucharest and Belgrade in 1978.
The Russians viewed Mr. Hua's visit to Romania with considerable disfavor, and they will be keeping an eye on the current Chinese tour, particularly when it fans out over Eastern Europe.
Mr. Hu's travels will end in Belgrade, since China does not have party contacts with any of Romania's Warsaw Pact allies. But senior officials from the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Department of Foreign Trade are to proceed to all five of Romania's East European partners.
The principal figure is Deputy Foreign Secretary Qian Qichen, who is conducting the current political talks with the Russians over improving Sino-Soviet relations. He is to visit Hungary, Poland, and East Germany, while other officials go to il10l,0,13l,4pCzechoslovakia and Bulgaria.
The Chinese apparently see this tour of East European capitals as an important step in fleshing out their own international contacts and as a gentle reminder to both the Soviet Union and the United States that China has a foreign policy independent of its relations with either superpower.
Mr. Hu avoided polemics in his Bucharest speechmaking, probably in order not to embarrass his hosts at a time when they are differing from Moscow over priorities within the Soviet-bloc trade organization and are concerned not to ruffle their Soviet relations because of their own economic difficulties.
Before leaving Peking, however, Mr. Hu indicated that China remains unhappy about what he termed ''anti-Chinese (Soviet) actions,'' meaning, presumably, such issues as support for Vietnam in Kampuchea and the huge military presence on China's border.
The East Europeans must of necessity lean toward the Soviet view on the obstacles to normalization between Moscow and Peking. Last month Izvestia charged that Peking was not really trying to improve the atmosphere and that, by criticizing Soviet armaments, it favors the US and NATO position on arms control.
Mr. Qichen can be expected to try to impress East European leaders of China's good intentions. His efforts will doubtless be passed on to Moscow. Mostly, however, it seems he is intent on improving China's own links in the economic field.