SHORTLY after George Bush or Michael Dukakis is installed as the next president of the United States, we are likely to be confronted with a realignment of the major communist powers. Chinese and Soviet leaders will probably hold a summit conference. The groundwork is being laid. The outcome will probably not be a return to the Sino-Soviet bonhommie of the 1950s, but the two largest communist powers will become closer to each other.
This will do several things.
It will change the bilateral relationship between the US and the Soviet Union. It will change the bilateral relationship between the US and China. It will impel the USSR into the major Asian policy role that Mikhail Gorbachev has been seeking. It will revive the delicate triangular power relationship between Washington, Moscow, and Peking.
The biggest danger in this would be restoration of a Sino-Soviet alliance that is threatening to the US. While the Soviet economy is in disarray, the USSR continues to be a major military power. While China is neither an economic nor military superpower, it can mobilize massive manpower. Arrayed against the US, the two could be troublesome.
But there are also some pluses. If the three power capitals can be kept in reasonable balance - each one being restrained by the others, and no combination of two emerging as threatening to the third - the world may see a continuation of the relaxation of tensions that is already under way.
Since Mr. Gorbachev came to power in the USSR he has been actively wooing the Chinese in pursuit of a warmer relationship. The Chinese have played hard to get. They have had three principal concerns: the number of Soviet divisions poised along the Sino-Soviet border; the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan; and Soviet support for, and supply of, Vietnamese forces occupying Cambodia.
The Chinese have seen Soviet bending on Afghanistan and Cambodia. Soviet troops are leaving Afghanistan, and the Soviets are pressuring Vietnam's forces to leave Cambodia. The Chinese have also watched Gorbachev's internal campaign for reforms in the USSR, and observed the cautious warming of ties between Moscow and Washington. Heartened by some of the Soviet initiatives, and eager not to be left behind by any improving US-Soviet relationship, the Chinese have now apparently decided it is time to make up with Moscow.
An additional factor is probably the poor state of China's economy. Its management has gone in cycles. Stultified under Mao Tse-tung, it has recently enjoyed some loosening up under Deng Xiaoping. But just this week the government imposed new curbs on the role of the free market and moved to tighten centralized decisionmaking.
China is eager for modernization, and a dialogue with the Soviets, as well as the Americans, may offer new opportunities for trade and development. After years of a cool relationship, the USSR and China permitted their foreign ministers, Eduard Shevardnadze and Qian Qichen, to meet at the United Nations last month. The Soviets announced after the meeting that the Chinese foreign minister would visit Moscow by the year's end and be received by Gorbachev. If that visit goes well, Mr. Shevardnadze will return to Peking to complete arrangements for a summit between Gorbachev and Mr. Deng.
That is expected to be held in Peking in 1989.
In the back rooms of the Bush and Dukakis camps, where advisers are pondering the challenges of the transition to power, those with foreign policy responsibilities should watch carefully. If the Washington-Moscow-Peking relationship is triangulated deftly, its changing character need not be cause for alarm.