SEVERAL recent signs indicate that the Soviet Union and China are moving toward a long-awaited rapprochement, especially following the recent announcement that the Chinese foreign minister would travel to Moscow later this year for talks on normalization of relations. Once close allies, later on the verge of war, China and the Soviet Union now find themselves as aging socialist countries grappling with a common problem: adapting their societies to the alien ways of the late 20th century.
Given the rise of pragmatic leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Mikhail Gorbachev, each eager to reduce foreign strains and to reach a d'etente with the United States, the most surprising thing about this coming rapprochement is that it did not happen earlier. The Soviets did try: Mr. Gorbachev repeatedly stated his strong desire for a deal with the Chinese. Rather, it has been China that has consistently spurned its ardent Soviet suitor.
Soviet attempts to establish a more positive relationship with China have produced only meager results because the Soviets have refused to provide the symbolic recognition of China's increasing authority which Peking demands. Yet recent diplomatic activity regarding Indochina, specifically signs of movement by all involved parties toward a possible resolution of the Cambodian problem, indicates that Moscow has at last decided to meet China's terms in full.
The role of this problem in Sino-Soviet relations stems from the Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978. In ousting the genocidal Khmer Rouge from power in 1978, the Soviet-allied Vietnamese also toppled a Chinese ally. China responded by launching a limited invasion of Vietnam, as Mr. Deng put it, ``to teach the Vietnamese a lesson.'' The intended lesson is that, as China begins to resume its ancient role as hegemon in East Asia, its interests must be respected even by states allied with great powers. Faced with a stubborn pupil, the Chinese have kept the pressure on the Vietnamese by, among other things, aiding the Khmer Rouge guerrillas.
The Chinese have always asserted that Vietnam could not maintain its occupation of Cambodia without the massive aid Moscow annually provides Hanoi. Thus, despite Soviet denials that they exercise sufficient leverage with the recalcitrant Vietnamese, Soviet proposals for a Sino-Soviet d'etente have been met with a list of Chinese conditions, first among them a demand that Moscow engineer a Vietnamese withdrawal.
Soviet efforts to appease the Chinese, by making concessions on their border dispute and troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and their common border, have reinforced the Chinese leaders' belief that Moscow will eventually comply on Cambodia. For the real price Peking is demanding is an unmistakable acknowledgment of Chinese power: Moscow's public sacrifice of its allies' interests for the sake of better relations with China.
Apparently, Moscow is now reluctantly doing just that. Diplomatic maneuvering this spring and summer resulted in an initial meeting between Vietnam and the major Cambodian disputants, including the Khmer Rouge and the noncommunist resistance. In Chinese eyes - and their perception is likely accurate - Vietnam's participation was clear evidence of Soviet arm-twisting. Although no settlement was reached, Vietnam has been conspicuously eager to announce reductions in its occupation forces and its intention to withdraw completely in 1989.
There are signs that these events, as well as accompanying Sino-Soviet talks in Peking, have pleased Chinese leaders. They have since made optimistic statements regarding bilateral relations. The Khmer Rouge have put forward a peace plan in which they propose a coalition government for Cambodia with only a limited role for themselves. They are the most powerful group among the Cambodian resistance and are known more for brutality than moderation, hence such a plan bears the earmarks of great pressure from their only ally, China, to move toward a settlement.
If this is true, then the last major obstacle to a Soviet-Chinese rapprochement may soon be removed; the world could be treated to the spectacle of Gorbachev touring the Great Wall early next year. Undoubtedly, both countries will have gained increased flexibility in their foreign policies vis-`a-vis the US. At a time when US relations with China are good and are improving with the USSR, the near-term results will probably be anticlimactic, most likely contributing to a further relaxation of tensions worldwide and increased international stability.
More important for the long term is that in having finally taught the Vietnamese their ``lesson,'' and the Soviets a newfound humbleness, China will have demonstrated its power and intention to order events to its liking, even though its ascendancy is only in its beginning stages. These examples should give others cause to reflect as the Chinese prepare to expand their classroom in the 21st century.
Douglas Seay is a research associate at the Center for Foreign Policy Development, Brown University.