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Asia's giants shadowbox over ties with opposing big powers

Asia's two giants -- China and India -- who fought each other in 1962 and whose armies still eye each other warily across disputed mountain borders, are inching toward closer relations.

With rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union looming large over Asia, as well as the rest of the world, the focus talks starting here today between the two most populous nations on earth is likely to be a mutual probing of each other's intentions vis-a-vis the two Western superpowers.

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The significance China attaches to the five-day talks is demonstrated by the fact that Peking is sending Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua to head its delegation.

Huang is the first high-level Chinese official to visit India since former Premier Chou En-lai, who came in 1960. He was to have come last year, but the Chinese postponed his visit following India's recognition of the Heng Samrin government in Cambodia.

The previous year, a China visit by India's then-foreign minister ended in diplomatic disaster. Chinese troops invaded Vietnam during his visit, prompting the minister to return home early, embarrassed and angry.

Although the atmosphere between China and India is a good deal more cordial now, diplomatic and local analysts expect no headlong rush into friendship between the two countries.

Major differences persist. At rock bottom, China is worried about the Indian's Soviet links, and India over the growing American arms supply relationships with China and Pakistan.

An added complication is that India perceives China as a potential enemy. About a dozen Indian divisions are arrayed on the Himalayan border with China. Just this week, Chief of Army Staff General Krishna Rao told Indian reporters that India had to be and was prepared for a joint attack by Pakistan and China.

Many Indians are convinced there is an "Islamabad-Peking-Washington axis," as they call it, against them. Recent US Moves to extend $3 billion in arms credits and economic aid to Pakistan and to open up arms sales to China have strengthened that suspicion.

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China, which sees its greatest threat coming from the Soviet Union, has been mounting a diplomatic campaign in Asia to warn of the dangers of Soviet expansionism in the region. It cites the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as a prime example -- and would like India, which is linked to the Soviet Union in a 1971 friendship treaty, to see it that way too.

India has joined other nonaligned nations in calling for the removal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, but it has declined to join publicly in the international condemnation of the Soviet intervention.

Between its lukewarm Afghan stand, its reliance on the Soviet Union as its major arms supplier, and its recognition of the Soviet-backed Heng Samrin regime in Cambodia, India has acquired a reputation as increasingly pro-Soviet -- which it denies.

Nevertheless, there is concern in foreign policy circles about the image of overdependence on the Soviet Union. Warmer relations with China, it is felt, can help dispel that image.

Huang is expected to fan apprehensions that the Soviets in Afghanistan pose a long- term danger to India as well. The Indian military stays out of politics and takes no public stands on the issue. But according to a Western military expert, "the Indian military is apprehensive. The military by and large think that the Soviets are not to be trusted. The Soviet presence in Asia does not sit well with the Indian military."

Huang's five-day visit will include talks with P. V. Narasimha Rao, India's foreign minister, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and President N. Sanjiva Reddy before he departs for an official visit to Sri Lanka.

Among the bilateral topics Huang and Rao will discuss will be the sorest point in Indo- Chinese relations: their long-standing border dispute involving the boundary of India's north-easternmost state and some 14,000 square miles of northwestern territory occupied by China since the 1962 war. Decisions are unlikely, but both countries will settle for getting the negotiations going.

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