IN a veiled act of political triumph, diplomats say, China's leaders begin talks Sunday with a Soviet deputy premier over food aid for Moscow, China's unspoken rival in socialism. A scheduled visit to Beijing by Soviet Deputy Premier Yuri Maslukov marks a stunning role reversal for the world's two socialist giants. For decades China accepted huge amounts of aid from its Soviet patron before the two countries fell out over ideology in the early 1960s.
The food aid, worth at least $700 million, signals how the two countries have recently drawn closer, in part because of fears that the United States will parlay its victory in the Gulf into world hegemony, the diplomats say.
The loan package, aimed at appeasing restive Soviet citizens, vindicates Beijing's claim that economic reform must precede all other sweeping changes in a socialist system, the diplomats say, on condition of anonymity.
China's leaders achieved unprecedented prosperity by unleashing market forces on the economy beginning in the late 1970s. They privately criticized Moscow for easing political controls in the mid-1980s and neglecting economic reform.
Beijing ``is rubbing the Soviets' noses in the aid a bit,'' a Western diplomat notes.
The ``commodity loan'' of between $700 million and $800 million will be made up of canned goods, pork, wheat, and other foodstuffs, says an East European diplomat.
This weekend, leaders of the two countries will discuss the interest rate, length of repayment, and other terms of the loan. The Soviets will pay back a portion of the loan through barter, according to the diplomat.
Moscow has prepared Beijing for Mr. Maslukov's visit with flattering official commentaries in the press, which China has quickly and prominently featured in its own newspapers.
``China's experience in economic reform is very valuable,'' Pravda said on Feb. 14, according to Cankao Xiaoxi (For Your Reference), China's official bulletin.
``There is no fundamental dispute between the USSR and China on many major issues, and this proves that the further development of Sino-Soviet relations has great potential,'' Pravda said.
Since officially ending three decades of hostility in May 1989, the two countries have steadily improved their relations on virtually every front:
Defense. Beijing is negotiating the purchase of several top-of-the-line jet fighters and other weaponry while advising Moscow on how to retool military factories for producing civilian goods. The two sides are also nearing an agreement on the details for large-scale troop reductions along their common border, diplomats say.
Trade. The two countries have promoted cross-border commerce and agreed on large barter deals. For instance, China plans to acquire two Soviet nuclear reactors in exchange for light industrial goods.
Communist Party affairs. Party leader Jiang Zemin plans to visit the Soviet Union in mid-May in the first such tour in more than three decades.
Foreign affairs. Moscow and Beijing called for a negotiated settlement of the Gulf conflict and opposed a United States-led ground offensive after consultations on the issue. Both have expressed concern that the US will emerge from the war as the world's predominant power.
``China and the Soviet Union have been gradually making deeper contacts and improving their relations for nearly two years, but admittedly the Gulf war has sped up this trend,'' says the East European diplomat.
The Soviets have sought the loan from China in part because the West has cooled relations with Moscow since the crackdown on secessionist movements in the Baltics and the comeback of conservative influence in the Kremlin, the diplomat says.
The West need not fear the steady improvement in Sino-Soviet relations, according to Western diplomats. The two countries are too preoccupied with economic and political problems at home to pose a threat beyond their borders.
And while both powers must uproot the legacy left from centuries of mutual distrust, Beijing apparently has further reason to feel hostile toward its northern neighbor.
China's leadership has privately condemned Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as a traitor to communism and held him responsible for the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe, Chinese sources say.