East German leader Erich Honecker arrives in Peking today for a visit that some observers say is a test of where China's relations with the Soviet Union may be headed. Mr. Honecker's China diplomacy signals a convergence of communist interests in establishing smoother political as well as economic ties across an ideological gap that once permitted neither.
Observers say that Honecker's sensitivity to Moscow's wishes makes it almost certain he would not be coming to China without Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's approval. Moscow thus appears to be encouraging Chinese ties with the Soviets' Warsaw Pact allies, in contrast to several years ago when it appeared worried that increased trade and political ties would bring pressure to settle its own differences with China too quickly.
Diplomats say the Chinese find Honecker attractive because he has been a strong supporter of maintaining a dialogue in East-West relations, particularly with West Germany, China's main West European trading partner.
``We greatly appreciate Democratic Germany's [East Germany's] stand of `100 rounds of talks rather than a single gunshot' to ease the situation in Europe as well as its unremitting efforts to maintain world peace,'' said Chinese Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang in an interview with East German news agencies last week. Mr. Hu first met Mr. Honecker in the 1950s when they were the leaders of the Communist Youth League for their respective parties.
On the eve of Honecker's visit, China and East Germany signed a $100 million contract for China to buy 300 railway coaches. Earlier this year, China signed an agreement to purchase 1,000 refrigerator cars from East Germany. This week's official visit will be largely political, since the two countries have already signed major agreements on trade, economic cooperation, and consular affairs.
Honecker is head of East Germany's Communist Party as well as of the government. Observers say that if there is a joint communiqu'e at the end of his visit, it will probably refer to party ties. East German diplomats say that relations between the two Communist Parties were never officially broken, but have been frozen for 25 years.
In Eastern Europe, China has party-to-party ties only with Yugoslavia and Romania, which has frequently strayed from what East European diplomats call the ``coordinated foreign policy'' of the Soviet-bloc countries.
Some observers say that the ice on China's party connections with East Europe was broken earlier this month with the visit of Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski. The visit was ``unofficial,'' however, having been quickly arranged at Polish insistence, when General Jaruzelski realized that if he didn't add Peking to his itinerary -- which took him to Mongolia and North Korea -- then Honecker would become the first leader of Moscow's staunch allies to visit China. Reportedly, neither the Chinese nor the East Germans were happy with the Polish leader's sudden arrival in Peking, though he met with all of China's top leaders.
Chinese officials have played down any coming restoration of party ties with other communist countries, a prospect that, for Westerners, raises the old fear of a monolithic communist movement. Chinese Vice-Premier Li Peng recently told a visitor from Bulgaria that, in the 1980s, when the Chinese Communist Party's agenda is taken up with economic modernization, party relations are not as important as they were in the 1950s.
A Chinese Communist Party spokesman said earlier this month that China was prepared to restore party relations with East European countries, but there was no thought of doing so with the Soviet Union.