China and India moving toward center stage in Asian diplomacy

A major shuffling of cards is occurring in Asia. ``The geopoliticial map of Asia is in the process of being redesigned,'' says a retired US diplomat. ``Where this movement is leading is not yet clear, but the balance of power that existed in the region for 25 years is undergoing a profound change.''

Many Asia-watchers here see China and India moving toward the center of the stage, while Pakistan and Vietnam are being pushed to the sidelines. Diplomatic relations among the superpowers -- the United States and the Soviet Union -- and India, China, and Japan are becoming less predictable.

Sources here point to a number of developments that signal diplomatic changes taking place in Asia:

Soviet-Japanese and Sino-Indian talks have become more cordial in recent months.

Soviet technicians are preparing to return to China.

India's Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi will visit Washington June 11.

One senior Asian diplomat says, ``We are not watching switches of alliances or stabs in the back, but the developing of a more complex and more dynamic geopolitical landscape than was Asia's in the last decade.''

The diplomatic battle lines in Asia that were drawn in the early 1970s are changing. The Soviet Union, India, and Vietnam were on one side. Japan, China, Pakistan, the United States, and the ASEAN countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, and Brunei) on the other.

In the last year Sino-Soviet relations have improved. Leaders of the two countries call each other ``comrades'' again and a Sino-Soviet trade agreement is to be signed later this month. India has to a large extent toned down its previously strident anti-US rhetoric and initiatives.

But an analyst with considerable experience in Asia notes that, before coming to Washington, Mr. Gandhi went to Moscow to reassert his commitment to the traditional friendship between those two countries. During the visit he was granted $1.15 billion in Soviet aid by Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

China, for its part, has no intention of returning to the Warsaw Pact and again becoming a Soviet satellite. It values its economic ties with Japan and the US enormously.

Relations between India and China have improved. Each remains suspicious of the other, and their border differences have not been settled. But as each concentrates on improving its economy, they are playing down differences and working to become good neighbors.

Both China and India are now steering a more independent path. ``By being on good terms with both superpowers they become more desirable to each [superpower], gain room for maneuver, [gain] increased aid, and turn less dependent on either of the [superpowers],'' this analyst says.

One trade-off that could emerge as India, China, and the Soviet Union mend their fences may affect Afghanistan and Kampuchea, reliable sources here say.

These sources predict that the Soviet Union might be allowed to have its way in Afghanistan. Pakistan might be compelled to stop allowing military supplies to reach Afghan resistance fighters through its territory.

For its part, Vietnam might have to settle for a neutral Kampuchea (Cambodia).

``Moscow is not about to leave Vietnam in the lurch, but neither will it support Vietnam's rigid positions regarding Kampuchea,'' says a Western diplomat who specializes in Asian affairs. ``Moscow is more likely now to seek some accommodation with China and with the ASEAN countries regarding the status of Kampuchea, which is now under Vietnamese occupation.

``Meanwhile China has toned down its rhetorical support of Pakistan with regard to Afghanistan even though Soviet policy vis-`a-vis Pakistan has become more aggressive,'' this diplomat adds.

Mr. Gorbachev has proposed an all-Asian security conference to reduce tensions on the continent along the lines of the 1975 Helsinki conference in Europe. China and India would be the key players at such a meeting, particularly if they act as partners rather than rivals, many diplomats here believe. -- 30 --

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