China stakes out new diplomatic ground -- with its athletes

There are few news items equally disconcerting to North Korean President Kim Il Sung and Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo. The announcement that China is sending a large sports delegation to the 10th Asian Games in South Korea next month is that kind of news. Neither of the two Presidents wants Peking to get cozy with Seoul.

China's intention to participate in the Seoul games is confirmation of what has been going on quietly and steadily since 1983 -- increasing rapport between two countries, China and South Korea, that for three decades previously had no political contact.

South Korea remains the only Asian nation (outside the Middle East) that retains diplomatic relations with Peking's rival government on Taiwan, and Peking clearly would like to pry the two anticommunist governments apart.

China's close relations with North Korea make that difficult for Peking, though the mainland Chinese have decided to risk a little unhappiness among their comrades in North Korea for the benefits of asserting Chinese prowess in international sports and staking out new diplomatic ground for themselves.

After walking away with 61 gold medals at the Asian Games in New Delhi four years ago, China out-performed for the first time Asia's former sports superpower: Japan. Expectations are high that China will take home even more medals from this year's meet, scheduled to be held Sept. 20 to Oct. 5.

China first sent a sports team to South Korea in April 1984 for an Asian basketball and swimming competition. The athletes traveled to Hong Kong and then to Seoul.

The Secretary-General of the Chinese Olympic Committee, Wei Jizhong, said Saturday that China's participation in the Seoul games was a decision to enter a sports competition. ``It should be understood only within this context,'' he said.

He also said, ``It is possible to send the athletes directly from Peking to Seoul.''

Diplomatic sources say that China has sent a letter to North Korea asking for its consent that the 515-member Chinese team fly directly to Seoul, though almost certainly not through North Korean airspace. (Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney flew directly from Peking to Seoul after an official visit to China in May.)

Reportedly, the North Koreans have not replied to the Chinese inquiry. Neither have they made any statements showing interest in the games themselves. Their silence is conspicuous, in view of their discussions with South Korea for co-hosting the 1988 Olympics.

The two Koreas have discussed holding more than a dozen events in the North, and there is talk of one bicycle race crossing the demilitarized zone. China has encouraged this cooperation to lessen tension on the Korean peninsula. A Chinese sports official said last weekend that China is still studying the question of sending a team to the 1988 Olympics. Few observers doubt that it intends to do so, though it may require more delicate diplomacy with North Korea.

One indication of the importance China gives to next month's Asian Games is the large number of members of the Chinese press scheduled to attend. With 89 reporters from every major news organization in the country and 385 athletes, there will be roughly one journalist for every four Chinese athletes.

Taiwan has not yet announced its entry in the Asian Games, though sources say that is likely soon. Taiwan is expected to accept the team name of ``Chinese-Taipei'' it has used at other sports events in which mainland Chinese athletes have participated.

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