CHINA'S leader, Deng Xiaoping, is 82 years old and says he isn't about to embark on any foreign travels -- with one exception. He is prepared, subject to certain conditions, to go to the Soviet Union to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Whether or not the conditions can be met, Mr. Deng's willingness to meet with the Soviet leader is significant.
Mao Tse-tung, that apostle of Chinese communist zealotry, broke with the Soviets, and though the reasons may have been various, one of them was that he didn't think the Soviets were very good communists.
But Mao has been gone for 10 years, his Cultural Revolution and frenzied attempts to thrust China into advanced communism are discredited, and Deng, the master of pragmatism, is trying to bring a little prosperity to China's socialism.
Might that involve a deal with the new leadership in Moscow?
Mr. Gorbachev launched a peace offensive when he made a tour this summer of the Pacific environs of the Soviet domain.
To both Japan and China he made reassuring noises.
Insofar as China's interests are concerned, there was announcement of a token withdrawal of 7,000 Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan, the possibility of Soviet troop reductions in Mongolia, the prospect of a deal to reduce Soviet and Chinese troop strengths along the common border of the two countries, and an end to minor border disputes which have nevertheless been a major irritant to China in the past.
Deng now says that if the Soviet Union withdraws its support for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, he is ready to meet with Gorbachev. The Soviets back the Vietnamese invaders, while the Chinese support resisting Cambodian guerrillas.
Whether the Soviets are prepared to pay that price for a rapprochement with China remains to be seen. But the prospect the West must countenance is that China and the Soviet Union will not always remain at daggers drawn and may become considerably friendlier.
The American attitude toward China has all too often been influenced by emotionalism and sentiment. In the '50s, when China was inaccessible to the West, Washington's suspicion of the Chinese communists was extreme. Then came Ping-Pong diplomacy, China opened up to Americans, and the pendulum swung far in the other direction. President Reagan visited China and dined and socialized with members of a regime he had once reviled.
The fact is that better relations between China and the United States do not mean the two countries are automatically allies. It means there are areas of common interest; it means there are issues on which each is willing to be helpful to the other.
But US foreign policy cannot be premised on the belief that Washington and Peking present a lasting common front against Moscow.
Deng wants China modernized and life for the Chinese made more prosperous. He knows that the technology to achieve this must come from the West. The Soviet Union is a poor economic role model.
But while the US and Europe are far away, the presence of the Soviet Union is close to China. A better relationship with Moscow would lessen the threat of military confrontation along an uneasy border, and allow even greater concentration on improving the Chinese economy.
Thus Deng may see the ideal relationship between Peking, Moscow, and Washington as a triangular one, with equidistant sides. Not for nothing is China known as the Middle Kingdom.
The US should consolidate and build on the relationship with China where it can. It should remain realistic about China's goals and clear about its own national interest.