THE United States can expect Sino-Soviet relations to make eye-catching advances in the near future. One big straw in the wind was Deng Xiaoping's declaration early last month that once the Soviets take a firm step toward urging an end to Vietnamese aggression in Cambodia, ``I am willing to meet Gorbachev.'' Though Mr. Deng and the Chinese leadership have adopted a ``wait and see'' posture in response to Mikhail Gorbachev's initiatives late in July, privately Peking is hopeful -- and some officials are excited.
When these further advances occur, the US, and more particularly the public and politicians in the heat of campaign politics, should not either veer onto the path of excessive accommodation of Peking or swerve in the opposite direction. Improvements in the Moscow-Peking relationship do not necessarily spell losses for Washington. Too, the US should not gratuitously give China bargaining leverage fearing that failure to make concessions will drive Peking still closer to Moscow.
Aside from the Deng interview, in the last three months alone there have been numerous signs of progress in China's relations with the Soviet Union: Peking's signing of a consular treaty with (Outer) Mongolia, a Soviet satellite with 50,000 to 60,000 Red Army troops; the recent trip to China of Soviet Vice-Premier Ivan Arkhipov, who reportedly met with several Chinese vice-premiers; the low-keyed way in which both sides played down a border incident in July; the September visit to China by Nikolai Talyzin, chairman of the State Planning Committee; the reported progress made in planning for a joint Soviet-Chinese development project in the important Amur River Basin and Moscow's apparent willingness to consider the disputed border along the Amur to be at the river's main channel, which is a modification of its previous public position that Soviet territory extended to the Chinese riverbank; and talk of renewed efforts to construct rail links between Soviet Kazakhstan and Xinjiang in western China.
Further improvement in Sino-Soviet relations could take several forms: Soviet troop withdrawals from Mongolia, as General Secretary Gorbachev suggested in his July 28th Vladivostok speech; gradual reduction or disengagement of military forces along the Sino-Soviet border; or progress on resolving the protracted territorial dispute. Certainly there will be further agreements to strengthen economic, cultural, and technological ties.
US reaction to such events should be balanced and moderate.
First, Peking has several important interests that can best be served by good relations with the US. These considerations will put a brake on accommodations with Moscow. Among those Chinese interests are access to capital, technology, and training in the US, and the US as a source of hard currency through trade. The point is not that China needs the US more than the US needs it; China, however, has important interests with the US at stake.
Second, undue American concern about improved Sino-Soviet ties could create a political psychology that made Washington decisionmakers more vulnerable to Peking's pressure on issues. For instance, the US government should continue to resist Chinese pressures to play a middleman's role concerning Taiwan. Fears of improving Sino-Soviet relations should not become a rationale for concessions on unrelated issues.
Third, the Soviet Union will always be a military concern to China in a way that the US is not.
Finally, a limited accommodation between the Soviet Union and China may serve both US interests and the cause of peace and stability in Asia.
If, for instance, improved relations were to facilitate an agreement to limit the placement of SS-20s in Sovieteast Asia, contribute to a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, or encourage Moscow to apply pressure to Hanoi to end its invasion of Cambodia, this would be all to the good. Similarly, if improved trade between the Soviet Union and western China were to contribute to economic growth in these areas, it would be conducive to internal stability in China and maintenance of the ``open'' policy. In short, limited Sino-Soviet accommodation could be constructive.
There are, of course, moves Peking could make that would be corrosive to our bilateral relationship.
Among such actions would be agreements with Moscow that would permit a shift of Soviet military assets to further threaten US and allied forces; agreements that would weaken economic and other ties to the West; and the attempt to parlay US concern about ties with Moscow into more-assertive positions on trade and Taiwan.
Barring such Chinese actions, remaining watchful, but not alarmed, is the prudent US response to improving Sino-Soviet relations.
David M. Lampton is director of China Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and associate professor of political science at Ohio State University.