Chinese Vice-Premier Li Peng is visiting Eastern Europe for the next two weeks chiefly on an economic mission. But the political importance of the trip cannot be overlooked. ``The Soviets are not pleased with the quick progress in relations between Eastern Europe and China,'' said one East European official based in Peking. As trade and other forms of economic cooperation between the Chinese and East Europeans grow, the political stalemate between Moscow and Peking becomes more conspicuous, the official said.
Vice-Premier Li is the highest-ranking Chinese leader to visit East Germany, Poland, and Hungary in more than two decades. He was trained in Moscow as an engineer and speaks Russian. He is said to be the Chinese Communist Party's preferred successor to Premier Zhao Ziyang.
Li's trip is part of the pattern of general improvement in China's relations with Europe's communist countries that began two years ago. Diplomats say the vice-premier is ready to discuss political affairs, though trade and economic cooperation are the main focus.
During his first stop in East Berlin over the weekend, his discussions with East German leader Erich Honecker included such issues as European disarmament and President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, according to diplomats in Peking.
Poland is the rising star in China's East European diplomacy. During Polish Deputy Premier Janusz Obodowski's visit to China in March this year, the Chinese expressed the same comradely warmth toward him and Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski as they were showing toward Moscow. Vice-Premier Li said at the time that China's political ties with Poland were getting stronger, along with economic and cultural relations.
Trade with Poland is expected to double this year to $500 million and to redouble in 1986. Poland is swapping machinery, cars, and machine tools for China's raw materials -- grain, cotton, and textiles. The trade partnership is a good fit, say East European diplomats.
There may be some appeal in the sales pitch East Europeans use with their Chinese trading partners -- it is easier to do business with other socialist countries than with the West, they claim.
Whether the Chinese buy this sales pitch, they clearly are ready to trade, on a barter basis, their own consumer goods and agricultural products for East European heavy industrial equipment.
The growth in China's trade with Eastern Europe -- including an almost 50 percent increase last year over 1983 -- has been consistent with the overall growth in China's imports and exports. The five-year trade agreements Li is expected to sign with Poland and Hungary during his trip provide for an acceleration of this growth, diplomats say.
China's trade with the East bloc in 1984 was about $1.3 billion, almost half that with Romania. This is still only a fraction of China's trade with Western Europe, which topped $6 billion last year.
China's relations with Eastern Europe depend to some extent on those countries' willingness to part company with Moscow, at least in matters of foreign policy. For instance, relations with East Germany are ``not all that bad,'' according to one official, but they are much less developed than those with Poland and Romania. A long-term trade agreement between China and East Berlin is still under discussion, though it should be signed by the end of the year, diplomats say.
China has no party-to-party relations with any East European countries except Romania, though recently there has been some discussion of unofficial cooperation between the party newspapers of Poland and China, perhaps as a preliminary step toward reestablishing party relations, which have been frozen since the early 1960s.
Meanwhile, China's relations with the Soviet Union have not been standing still. Chinese Vice-Premier Yao Yilin is expected to travel to Moscow next month to sign a long-term trade agreement with the Soviet Union. It will be a return visit for that of Soviet Deputy Premier Ivan V. Arkhipov, who came to Peking last December.
Li's trip to East Europe will be followed in June by a slightly longer visit by Premier Zhao to Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands.