Deng Xiaoping has skillfully taken center stage away from Mikhail Gorbachev without making concessions. That is the assessment by Western diplomats in Peking of Mr. Deng's response to the Soviet leader's initiatives to improve relations with China.
China's top leader has cast himself in the limelight in an interview with CBS News's ``60 Minutes.'' (Portions of the interviewed were broadcast Sunday; the balance is scheduled for Sept. 21.)
A substantial part of Deng's comments on China's relations with the Soviet Union and the United States was featured on the front page of yesterday's People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper.
In the interview, Deng offered to go to Moscow, a trip he has repeatedly refused to make until now.
``If Mr. Gorbachev removes the three big obstacles, especially persuading Vietnam to stop the invasion of Cambodia and to withdraw its troops, then I myself would like to meet him,'' Deng said. (Peking's other two ``obstacles'' are the large number Soviet troops on China's northern border and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.)
``If this obstacle in Sino-Soviet relations is removed, I will be ready to break the rule and go to any place in the Soviet Union to meet with Gorbachev,'' he said, according to the New China News Agency.
Diplomats noted the high profile of Deng's comments and his stress on the one issue the Soviets have said is the most troublesome: Vietnam's military role in Cambodia.
``This is an extremely clever way to put the ball back in the Soviet court, knowing full well that this is the most difficult issue,'' said one Western diplomat. Meanwhile, the diplomat said, ``Deng is getting more publicity for his answer to Gorbachev than Gorbachev got for his speech.''
Another Western diplomat observed, however, that Deng did not ask the Soviets to bring about the complete withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and that some substantial reduction might be sufficient. Vietnam claims to withdraw troops each year and has said it would withdraw all of its troops by 1990.
The Soviet Union provides economic and military aid to Vietnam, without which, Deng said, ``Vietnam could not stay in Cambodia even for one day.''
Gorbachev has offered to meet with Deng several times in the past six months, but Deng had reportedly refused.
In the interview, Deng had much to tell President Reagan as well. He expressed hope for further improvement in China's relations with the US, but said the US had not maintained a policy of noninterference on the Taiwan issue, as the US claims, and needed to adopt a ``wiser attitude'' on this question.
``If we say there are three big obstacles between China and the Soviet Union, there is also an obstacle between China and the United States -- that is the Taiwan issue, which means the reunification of China,'' he said. ``I believe the United States, especially President Reagan, can do something on this issue.''
According to the People's Daily, Deng said there was ``something new'' in the Soviet leader's speech in Vladivostok six weeks ago, and China welcomed it, but that subsequent comments from Soviet officials in Moscow differed in tone. ``So we must wait and see about Soviet policy toward China,'' he told CBS News, according to the People's Daily.
In semi-annual talks held with the Chinese since 1982, the Soviets have said that both Indochina and Afghanistan are issues involving third parties and are not negotiable with China. Until a speech by Gorbachev in Vladivostok six weeks ago, the Soviets had shown no flexibility on any of these points.