AS if resurrecting America's cold-war nemesis, Soviet and Chinese diplomats talk these days of a new alliance. But this time the world's communist titans are joining as comrades-in-peril, not comrades-in-arms: Rather than spark revolutions abroad, they plan to collaborate in the reform of their ramshackle socialist systems at home.
Normalizing ties after three decades of hostility, Beijing and Moscow will consult extensively over their common struggle to fulfill communism's promise of prosperity and freedom.
The two neighbors are natural allies in the mutual effort to breath life into their poor and repressive societies.
Each of their Communist Parties has followed a different path to the same goal of boosting flagging credibility through the immediate improvement of people's livelihood, rather than through the promise of an eventual Marxist Utopia. Each party has reformed realms the other has left largely untouched as they try to promote economic efficiency, uproot corruption, and shake up their monopolistic rule.
Beijing is under pressure from intellectuals to apply forms of Moscow's program of glasnost or openness. Such political reforms would be a critical spur to individual initiative and the revival of China's stalled economic reforms, Chinese economists say.
Moscow plans to adapt many aspects of China's decade-old economic reforms. Such steps could buttress Soviet political reforms with the tangible economic benefits that have so far eluded the controversial program of perestroika (restructuring).
Comparing the new Sino-Soviet relationship with the aggressive and expansionistic axis during the 1950s, Soviet diplomat Sergei Stepanov said, ``Now is the period of consultation over mutual concepts, mutual learning, mutual exchange of ideas.''
``There will be a very high degree of exchange on reform, because both sides are experimenting and they are very concerned about the successes and mistakes of the other,'' an East European diplomat says. The largest delegation from the Soviet Academy of Sciences to visit China in 30 years plans this month to map out joint studies on reform with its Chinese counterpart.
Wary of how market-oriented economic reform has subjected society to strain, Chinese officials plan to emulate Moscow and better prepare Chinese society for changes in the economy by reforming the legal system, says Lu Nanquan, a specialist on the Soviet economy trained in Moscow. Unlike the Soviets, Chinese reformers have lacked adequate laws to control private entrepreneurs and other forces emerging in the freer economy, he says.
Yet Beijing knows that it must also ease controls and exploit the energy of freer citizens if it hopes to prolong the stunning gains from a decade of economic reform. ``Chinese policymakers have realized that economic reform has stalled in many ways because of a lack of political reform,'' Mr. Lu says.
So far, Beijing's political reforms have been stylistic, not substantive. In a campaign for ``transparency,'' the party has merely reduced its meddling in day-to-day state affairs and tolerated a slightly more active press and greater openness in decision-making. Many intellectuals consider these steps meager. They express admiration for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and have urged Beijing to follow his example and loosen controls on the press, dissent, and assembly.
But Chinese leaders are concerned that by allowing dissent, they will encourage unrest among sectors in society that have seen other groups grow richer under reform. They are eager to learn how Soviet leaders have maintained a firm political grip while easing state restrictions, the Eastern European diplomat says.
For their part, Soviet leaders have learned much from China's lead in economic restructuring. Soviet economists criticize how Beijing has applied reforms piecemeal. They say that in contrast Moscow has coordinated changes in politics, party rule, economics, and foreign relations.
Soviets note how Beijing's unorchestrated approach to reform has created chaos, as decontrolled areas in society disrupt others still run by the state.
Beijing has halted its key economic reforms in the last six months in an effort to throttle runaway inflation. But the retrenchment has stalled the partially overhauled economy in a no-man's-land between a market and a state-run system.
Taking further lessons from China's ad hoc approach to reform, Soviet economists say that Beijing failed to anticipate the difficulties it would confront in reclaiming the powers it has delegated to local officials.
At first, the initiative of newly empowered provinces and cities helped goad economic growth and streamline decision-making once centered in Beijing. But these autonomous local officials are now resisting the effort of Beijing to halt capital construction, reduce state loans, and cool the overheated economy.
Yet China's leaps during its dynamic reforms have instructed Soviets more than its stumbles.
Moscow will increasingly transform state-run enterprises into collective businesses which contract with the state on raw material prices and production quotas, Mr. Stepanov says. It aims to expand efforts to nurture privately run enterprises, modeled after a vibrant agricultural sector in rural China that employs millions of formerly idle workers.
Moreover, Moscow plans to loosen economic controls in four coastal areas, hoping to lure foreign investment as similar areas in China have. And it will free prices on some manufactured and consumer goods, adapting measures that have bolstered supply and streamlined distribution in China, Stepanov says.
In agricultural reform the Soviets plan to both emulate and instruct the Chinese. Moscow will expand pilot projects allowing farmers to till land under contract from the state, copying a Chinese reform that has inspired dramatic gains in production and wealth in the countryside, Stepanov says.
Moscow will encourage peasants to use newer technology with fewer hands on larger farms than in China. This way, the Soviets will avoid the slumping productivity of China's smaller, more backward family farms, he said.
Second of a four-part series on Sino-Soviet relations.