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China's need for friends

EVEN as it applies brakes to economic reform, China is giving some gas to diplomacy. Its leaders are cautiously moving toward a summit with the Soviet Union next year, the first such meeting in 30 years. They are also working toward a resolution of the Cambodian problem, which involves the Soviets and their ally Vietnam. In December China is scheduled to be host to Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi. It has been 34 years since leaders of these two giants of Asia, which fought border wars in the '60s, have sat down together. And, finally, the Chinese are pursuing better relations with the South Koreans and other Asian nations whose entrepreneurial successes are legend.

Each of these initiatives has a dynamic of its own. The Chinese may well feel that after six years or more of Soviet peace overtures, the time has come to respond. The Soviets, after all, are making good on their pledge to withdraw from Afghanistan, which was a major Chinese condition for a summit. And there has been some movement in Cambodia, where a Vietnamese-backed regime precariously rules, with Soviet support - though a settlement hardly seems imminent.

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India's Mr. Gandhi has his own reasons for traveling to Peking. His party faces crucial elections early next year, and peacemaking efforts never hurt a politician. Also, India has close ties to the Soviets and the Vietnamese and may be in line for a peacekeeper's role in Cambodia.

But never out of view, in all these diplomatic endeavors, is China's determination to push ahead with its own economic revitalization. That program has hit a few bumps recently. Inflation, climbing toward 50 percent, spurred the leadership to slap price controls back on some commodities. Corruption is a problem, too. Party and military officials are said to be getting a fat slice of the profits from many newly formed businesses. Private traders and big-spending local authorities will be reined in. Unleashed economic activity, it appears, became a little too freewheeling for Peking's taste.

Still, the country's future is tied to a more open economy that welcomes modernization and investment from abroad. China is eager to do business, which is why it willingly buries the hatchet with countries like South Korea. The South Koreans have the business acumen and grasp of high technology that China needs. And though Peking is ready to deal with Moscow, it will do so with one eye on Washington. Good relations with the United States are vital to China's economy.

Negative American feelings about Sino-Soviet rapprochement could conceivably undercut such lucrative deals as the pending sale of US-made satellites to a Far East consortium that plans to launch them on Chinese rockets. Congress, ever sensitive to shifting political winds, has to approve the export license.

Officially, however, the US welcomes better relations between the two big communist powers. Both countries, after all, are preoccupied with economic reform and both need stronger relations with the West. China's diplomatic efforts serve these ends, and they should serve world peace as well.

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