Recent reports of conflict along the Sino-Vietnamese border, though obviously exaggerated by both sides, underline the growing tension in Sino-Vietnamese relations. That tension that is affecting Vietnamese and Chinese relations with their superpower allies as well.
On Monday the Chinese claimed to have repulsed six Vietnamese incursions. Last week the Vietnamese announced that they had ''put out of action'' 5,500 Chinese troops since April. In the same period, the Vietnamese say, 60 civilians have been killed and 180 injured in Chinese attacks.
Some of these claims become less substanital when viewed close up. Speaking to journalists in Hanoi in late April, Gen. Dam Quang Trung gave a fairly low-key account of one incursion. A Chinese cross-border attack on April 6, he said, had penetrated less than one kilometer before being repulsed. No Chinese had been captured in the raid, General Trung said, and ''several'' of his men had been injured. At the time, the incursion was described by Hanoi as ''extremely serious.''
The importance Hanoi attaches to the border fighting reflects its concern over what it considers the increasingly close relationship between the United States and China. In Hanoi's view, the timing of the border conflict is particularly significant.
Tension along the border escalated early in April. Later that month President Reagan visited Peking. General Trung - a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) Central Committee and the commander of Vietnamese troops who repelled the 1979 invasion - told journalists bluntly that the attacks were meant to ''celebrate Reagan's arrival.''
Mr. Reagan's visit at a time of border tension, the Vietnamese feel, show US approval of Chinese military moves.
In addition, Hanoi notes, a US-China agreement in nuclear cooperation was initialed during the Reagan visit. The President's visit was followed by one from Jeane Kirkpatrick, US ambassador to the United Nations. Border tension continued.
Then last week, just as the Vietnamese claimed that the Chinese were escalating their pressure on the border, Chinese Defense Minister Zhang Aiping left for Washington. The Vietnamese claimed that Zhang's main interest in the US was military equipment. Zhang's comments in the US seem to bear this out. Hanoi termed the visit ''a new and dangerous step in Sino-American military collusion.''
Hanoi's response has been to draw closer to Moscow. In mid-April, Soviet marines landed in Vietnam during a joint military exercise, apparently the first of its kind.
Later that month, Hanoi cancelled at the last minute a visit by a team from the joint Casualty Resolution Center in Hawaii. The team was expecting to receive the remains of at least six US servicemen missing in action since the Vietnam war. Though no public reasons have been given, sources close to Hanoi say that the cancellation was the direct result of what the Vietnamese view as US-Chinese ''collusion.''
Late last month, Vietnam's defense minister, Gen. Van Tien Dung, stopped over briefly in Moscow during a tour of Eastern bloc countries.
The Soviets seem to have responded to Hanoi's concern. The visit to Peking of First Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Arkhipov, scheduled for early May, was abruptly and unexpectedly cancelled. Again, no explanation for this was made public, but Vietnamese sources say the gesture was intended to signal Soviet displeasure at continuing Chinese pressure on Vietnam.
Another gesture of Soviet reassurance for their Vietnamese allies came on Monday - the day Zhang Aiping began his visit to the US. During a meeting in Moscow with his Vietnamese counterpart, Le Duan, Soviet party chief Konstantin Chernenko ''resolutely condemned'' Chinese activities along the Sino-Vietnamese border.