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China and the bear

On the theory that a reduction in tension anywhere in the world is desirable, there should be no wringing of hands over the fact that the Russians and the Chinese may be moving toward a detente of sorts. It is true that the bitter Sino-Soviet split of the past two decades has had geopolitical benefits for the West, but no one would want to see that quarrel reach a point of armed conflict that could engulf much of the world. Efforts toward a thaw are therefore in the interest of all.

Even if the bilateral negotiations now begun in Peking lead to a normalization of ties, it is doubtful there will soon again be the close relationship that existed in the 1950s. The Chinese have a deep-seated distrust of the Russians that dates back to pre-Soviet times when the Russian tsars annexed territories on which the Chinese empire had a claim. Even during the brief period of communist collaboration, the Chinese came to dislike the Soviets for their arrogance, dominance, and refusal to share their nuclear knowledge.

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The Russians, for their part, still tend to link the Chinese with the Mongol invaders and worry about modern Asian hordes pouring over their border into the sparsely populated Siberian expanses.

Although mistrust runs deep on both sides, each now seems to want to mute the overt hostility and establish a more normal, more rational relationship. No doubt the chill in Moscow's relations with the United States plays a role, for what the Soviet leadership has always feared most is a war on two fronts: one with the West, another with China. Now that a more pragmatic, moderate regime has been installed in Peking, Mr. Brezhnev clearly sees an opportunity to try to diminish the tensions that have kept 45 Soviet divisions pinned down on the long Sino-Soviet frontier.

Since the heady days of ping-pong diplomacy with the United States, the People's Republic of China, in turn, has begun to pursue a more independent policy. It is again aligning itself conspicuously with the third world, distancing itself somewhat from the United States, and permitting more trade, sports, and cultural ties with the Soviet Union as a counterbalance to its links with Washington.

Domestic politics may in part be driving these trends. For Deng Xiaoping, if he is to protect his flanks in the face of opposition to his reformist policies, has to show that he is willing to stand up to the US on such issues as American arms sale to Taiwan. In any case, it seems logical for Peking to seek an improvement of relations with its overpowering northern neighbor as it devotes time and resources to modernizing the economy. Indeed there is no reason why two nations that are natural trading partners should not have better ties.

Fundamental differences with the Soviet Union, however, are bound to remain and to prevent the kind of accommodation between two communist colossi that could pose a threat to the West. The Chinese let themselves be embraced once by the Soviet bear. They are unlikely to invite another hug.

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