There are few more astute observers of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev than China's Deng Xiaoping. As an early visitor to Moscow in 1925 and as a senior Chinese leader since the 1950s, Mr. Deng has had many decades to assess Soviet behavior toward China and to size up men in the Kremlin.
It should therefore be of some comfort to the United States that three weeks after Mr. Gorbachev's bold foreign policy statements in Vladivostok, in the Soviet Far East, there are few signs that officials in Peking are any less skeptical than those in Tokyo or other Asian capitals about Soviet intentions in East Asia.
The skepticism has been most obvious in China's reiteration -- this time more substantial than usual -- of its concern about one regional security issue that Gorbachev failed to address specifically: Vietnam's military role in Cambodia.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian said last week that Cambodia was the question China is ``most concerned about.'' He said China was ``not satisfied'' that the Soviet leader had not addressed this problem.
There have also been comments in the pro-Peking Hong Kong press which go beyond the crafted language of recent Foreign Ministry statements and which analysts say reflect official thinking in Peking.
For instance, an Aug. 11 editoral in the newspaper Wen Wei Po said: ``Analyzing Gorbachev's speech, we find that his intention was to raise the question of Asian security for the purpose of vying with the USA for superiority in the Pacific. However, a guarantee of security in the Asia-Pacific region must be given with practical deeds, not just stated in words.''
But as China stands firm on its regional security concerns (including the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the deployment of Soviet troops along its northern border), it is also digesting the new possibilities for rapprochement Gorbachev has pointed out.
One sign of positive Chinese interest was the presence in Peking of Soviet Vice-Premier Ivan Arkhipov. East European sources say his visit was for medical treatment and strictly private. Western diplomats, however, report that he has met with several Chinese vice-premiers, including possibly Li Peng, Tian Jiyun, and Qiao Shi. The Western sources speculate that he is answering questions on Gorbachev's speech. But one East European diplomat insisted last week that, ``There are absolutely no negotiations going on.''
In a related development, China signed a consular agreement with Mongolia on Aug. 9, effectively upgrading its relations with that Soviet ally, which hosts five of the 53 divisions of Soviet troops deployed along the Chinese border. It was the first such agreement since 1949. Diplomats say the accord will make it easier for the Soviets to withdraw part of their Mongolian contingent, a move Gorbachev said was under discussion. This has been welcomed by the Chinese, who again have pointed to practical deeds as the test of sincerity.
Another important step forward in Chinese-Soviet relations has been progress on the massive Amur River basin project along the Chinese-Soviet border. Well-informed diplomatic sources say China acceded last spring to the Soviet offer to revive the project, first announced in 1956 but abandoned four years later when the Chinese-Soviet alliance split up. Planning on the river basin development is quite advanced, said Prof. Roy Kim, a specialist in Soviet Far Eastern affairs from Drexel University of Philadelphia who recently met with Chinese officials and Soviet diplomats in Peking.
The plan calls for a series of hydroelectric dams and improvement in navigation for commercial boat traffic along the Amur, Sungari, and Ussuri Rivers. Professor Kim said this is related to Soviet proposals, now under discussion, to push the commercial and industrial development of the Soviet Far Eastern seaboard and to open Vladivostok to foreign trade and investment.
Diplomats say that China's agreement to cooperate on developing the Amur basin presumes a settlement of its longstanding territorial dispute along the same river. This would be a major step forward for the two sides, who fought briefly over the border issue in 1969.
Another border project was touched on in the Gorbachev speech: the long-stalled railroad construction project that would link the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan and China's far-western region of Xinjiang region. Construction was interrupted by the 1960 breakdown in bilateral relations.
One view of China's more active diplomacy with the Soviets on these issues is that Deng wants to encourage the Soviet initiatives and not be left at a disadvantage when Gorbachev begins a series of summit meetings with other world leaders.
``The Chinese also want to show a little passionate interest just to make Washington nervous,'' said one diplomat.
Deng reportedly has refused an invitation to meet with the Soviet leader twice in the past nine months. His unwillingness to meet does not seem likely to change until there has been a detectable change of atmosphere. This has not happened so far, though there are many Chinese who would like to see such a turning point and hope Gorbachev will make it possible.
In general, Deng's attitude toward Gorbachev has been one of ``wait and see.'' He told a foreign visitor recently that it would be four years before the world could judge the effectiveness of the Soviet leader's new policies.