China's new pragmatism reaps foreign policy gains

China's foreign minister heads to Moscow tomorrow hoping to bag Peking's biggest diplomatic payoff in a decade. His mission is to prepare for the first Chinese-Soviet summit in nearly 30 years. The trip highlights China's shift from an isolationist adherence to Maoist dogma to a more pragmatic diplomacy based on the country's power and needs.

The mission vindicates Peking's longstanding, hard-headed position that Sino-Soviet ties would improve only after Moscow removes ``three obstacles.'' Moscow has so far bowed to China's adamant stand on the three, beginning a retreat from Afghanistan, cutting its troop strength on the common border, and agreeing to help end Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia. Peking says a timetable for a complete Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia would prompt a summit sometime early next year.

The deft and flexible diplomacy of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev toward Asia since 1986 has significantly advanced the Peking-Moscow rapprochement, according to Asian and Western diplomats. But Peking, by demanding Soviet concessions before improving ties, deserves most of the credit for the easing of tensions in Asia, they say.

``Because the Chinese held out, the Soviets have had to make the concessions,'' said a Western diplomat, noting that China has played a major role in persuading the Soviets to withdraw a division from Mongolia and scrap their medium-range SS-20 missiles in Asia.

Indeed, the success of China's persistent emphasis on the ``three obstacles'' is the hallmark of its Realpolitik, the diplomats say.

The push for the summit is part of a 10-year campaign by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to lead China away from the economic stagnation and doctrinaire Maoist foreign policy of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

The current diplomacy mirrors Mr. Deng's pragmatic rejuvenation of the domestic economy. The double-digit, annual economic growth from his market-oriented reforms has given Peking the confidence to match its foreign policy pragmatism with assertiveness, according to foreign diplomats.

``China's foreign policy is growing more and more pragmatic,'' an East European diplomat said. ``It seems that if a policy can bring the Chinese financial, diplomatic, or military gain, they will do it regardless of ideology or adverse consequences.''

Deng launched the current diplomatic approach in an effort to ease the tensions around China's border that would distract it from its chief aim of developing the economy. That realism has helped lure the foreign investment and technology that are critical to China's modernization.

Increasingly, China has also based its diplomacy on a growing self-confidence and the belief that the superpowers will gradually surrender their global primacy to numerous rival powers worldwide. Chinese officials predict privately that Peking will be one of the major forces in the coming multipolar world.

As one of the world's leading powers, China would naturally wield power in Asia. Through its foreign policy of realism it has already strengthened its position in the region. Its recent successes include:

Diplomatic. Rajiv Gandhi plans to visit China late next month in the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 34 years. China enjoys the courting of India as an indirect gain from its steadfast position against the Soviets on the three obstacles, according to diplomats. India is a close friend of Moscow and does not want to lose out on a warming of Chinese-Soviet relations.

Also, during a visit through Southeast Asia last month, Premier Li Peng enlisted Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke in Peking's effort to renew diplomatic ties with Indonesia, the most populous country and largest economy in the region. Indonesia broke diplomatic ties with China after an aborted Peking-backed coup in 1965.

Moreover, China has restrained its vitriol against Japan's wartime aggression since August, when it launched a ``new type of relationship'' with Asia's economic powerhouse. The new approach is based on China's need for technology and investment and Japan's need to market its capital and manufactured goods.

Military. China has negotiated the building of an arms stockpile in Thailand, the first hoard of weaponry China has established outside its own borders, according to Asian diplomats.

Also, China this year has bolstered its naval fleet in the South China Sea from 20 to 70 vessels and begun constructing garrisons on some of the contested Spratley Islands, according to Vietnam. The buildup, like the test firing of a rocket from a nuclear submarine in September and naval exercises in the western Pacific, reflect China's plan to turn its largely coastal force into a blue-water navy, according to diplomats.

Trade. Asian diplomats say China and South Korea plan to formalize a direct shipping route, facilitating trade that South Korean officials expect to reach $3 billion this year - nearly six times the level of trade between China and North Korea. Peking agreed in April to allow 20 South Koreans to enter China this fall, the first of numerous South Korean tour groups, Asian diplomats say.

A Chinese trade official told the official China Daily that China plans to send a delegation to Dec. 5 negotiations in Montreal over its reentry into the body of free-trade nations known as GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).

Last month China and Saudi Arabia agreed to open trade offices in each other's capitals. The move strengthens Peking's unofficial ties with a major buyer of its weaponry and one of the most anticommunist states in the Mideast. It also deals a diplomatic blow to Peking's rival Taiwan: Saudi Arabia maintains the largest foreign embassy in Taipei.

China's aggressive diplomacy has sometimes led it into trouble, diplomats say, pointing to the uproar after Peking sold Silkworm missiles to Iran and medium-range missiles to Saudia Arabia.

The Chinese ``are going to have to weigh their losses as well as their gains in areas where they are becoming more assertive because it can have a backlash effect in terms of cooperation with the West,'' a foreign-policy observer said.

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