CHANGE in the lives of individuals or the policies of nations may stand out more visibly at the end of a calender year, when the flow of events can be measured over time. In such a fashion, it now seems clear that a significant new pattern is emerging in Sino-Soviet relations -- a pattern that Western nations would be wise not to overlook. The two Communist powers, who had a major falling out a quarter century ago, have now accelerated the pace of their normalization of relations, underscored by the visit to Moscow Monday of Chinese Vice-Premier Li Peng, who met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
For both nations, as well as the United States and other Western chancellories, the Sino-Soviet rapprochement has considerable implications. For China, the move toward a semblance of ``equidistance'' in China's standing between Washington and Moscow allows Peking to adopt a more independent stance toward third-world nations and to the international community generally. For Moscow, the closer linkage means less concern about conflict on its Eastern border with China and, thus, greater flexibility in dea ling with Washington and with Europe to Moscow's West. For the United States, the warming Sino-Soviet exchange means a need for greater sensitivity to the nuances of policy with Peking on such matters as technology transfers, protectionism, and the US link to Taiwan.
Whether the visit of Mr. Li to Moscow was coincidental, as some reports have it -- merely stopping there en route to Peking after visits to France, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria -- or whether it was anticipated weeks back, as some press reports out of Peking have it, is beside the point. Granted, Li and Gorbachev no doubt discussed last week's hijacking of a Soviet airliner to Chinese soil. But the mere fact that the two men met is the more important consideration. Nor is the Gorbachev-Li greeting an iso lated handshake. Soviet Vice-Foreign Minister Kapitsa just visited Peking, where it was agreed that Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze would visit Peking late next year while Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian would travel to Moscow, possibly in May or June. The agreement about the exchange of foreign ministers has been in the works for several months now. In July of this year the two sides hammered out an economic accord that would double their two-way trade over the next five years.
The growing volume of trade shows how the relationship is improving. In 1982 trade between the two sides was some $300 million. This year it is about $1.8 billion. By 1990 it is projected to reach $3.5 billion.
Parallel to the growing Sino-Soviet interchange, Peking is also more actively courting East-bloc nations, as witness the just-finished visit by Mr. Li to Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. Last week China and East Germany also held important talks in Peking aimed at expanding trade. The East German-Chinese economic talks are noteworthy, since the ``other Germany'' -- Bonn -- is currently Peking's fourth largest trading partner, behind Japan, the United States, and Hong Kong.
Despite these diplomatic interchanges, major points of contention remain between Moscow and Peking -- particularly regarding the Soviet role in Afghanistan (just criticized again by China); the large number of Soviet troops on the USSR's Eastern border with China; and Soviet support for the Vietnamese forces in Kampuchea.
But could movement by Moscow on each, or any, of these issues bring the two sides into a much closer relationship that in effect overrules Peking's current policy of seeking ``equidistance'' between Moscow and Washington? That is what Washington must seriously ask -- as well as how far it would be willing to go to prevent such an alteration in the current triangular relationship.
Surely, Washington can no longer take Peking for granted, if it ever could. At the same time, it has, in the person of Gorbachev, a Soviet leader who is proving far more imaginative than his immediate predecessors in shaping foreign policy. What all this means is that -- regarding the Washington-Moscow-Peking triangle -- the full pattern has yet to emerge.