he Soviet Union's recent denunciation of Chinese land claims was not only intended as a warning to Peking that the time has come to get serious in their normalization talks but also a skillfully aimed billiard shot now caroming toward two other targets.
One is Secretary of State George P. Shultz, whose arrival in Peking, set for Feb. 2, is anticipated here with concern. The Russians are apparently calculating that Shultz may be ready to offer the Chinese leaders something that might deflect them from pursuing their present course of improving relations with Moscow.
According to analysts here, last week's New Times article raising the sensitive territorial issue appears to signal to Washington that there are no prospects for a sudden improvement in Sino-Soviet relations. This presumably is expected to strengthen the hand of those in Washington who contend that the Chinese are only bluffing a move toward Moscow and who oppose any substantial U.S. concessions to Peking.
The Russians have a very high regard for Shultz's negotiating skills, and Moscow's objective is to make his task more difficult.
The second target is the Nonaligned Movement, planning to hold a highly publicized summit meeting in New Delhi in March. The New Times article was published as Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang was concluding an extensive tour of Africa, the first by a Chinese premier since Chou En-lai went to Africa at the end of 1963 in an effort to win the continent's revolutionary movements away from Moscow and to build up Peking's influence at the 1964 Nonaligned summit in Cairo.
Zhao Ziyang's tour, while taking place in different circumstances, nevertheless reflected Peking's effort to influence African nations and the outcome of the New Delhi summit. Although Zhao made no anti-Soviet statements in public, the Russians believe he may have privately conveyed Chinese grievances against Moscow to African leaders.
Hence, the Russians have moved to publicize their complaints about Peking and have chosen to stress the issue of territorial claims, knowing that border changes are extremely sensitive in postcolonial Africa.
New Times is well suited for this, for the widely translated journal is published in several African languages and is one of the Soviet publications most often read in Africa.
The more than 577,000 square miles of territory claimed by China includes the city of Vladivostok, huge Lake Baikal and much of the Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, the New Times article said.
As for the Chinese, the article sends a double signal in advance of the March round of Sino-Soviet political talks.
First, the Russians seem to be telling the Chinese that the time has come to stop polemics and get down to business. Moscow had turned off its rhetorical attacks before the first round of talks in Peking last October, and it now expects China to do the same.
Second, the Russians view contradictory statements coming from Peking as an indication that parts of the Chinese hierarchy are resisting the process of normalization with Moscow. The Soviet assessment is that the Chinese opponents of rapprochement are using the highly emotional issue of "lost territories" to rally support against what is still a fragile search for accommodation.
By ridiculing the extent of the Chinese border claims and by proposing the resumption of border negotiations to resolve all such issues, the Russians are asking for a Chinese response that will enable Moscow to judge the relative strengths of those in Peking who favor normalization and those who oppose it.
The border dispute goes far back into Russo-Chinese history.
The Russians had conquered the Far East in the mid-17th century but, preoccupied by a war with the Tatars, yielded the whole Amur River basin to the Manchu Dynasty. The negotiations were conducted at Nerchinsk, on the Amur River, while it was surrounded by a large Chinese fleet and 17,000 Chinese soldiers.
The Russians subsequently claimed that the Treaty of Nerchinsk was imposed on them. In the 19th century the tables were turned and Russia took back 380,000 square miles of territory under treaties that Peking says were imposed on weak Chinese emperors.
The longest disputed segment of the Russo-Chinese frontier is in central Asia. This boundary, as well as the one in the Far East, has been listed on all Chinese maps since the establishment of Communist China in 1949 as "undefined."
While in past years they insisted that a rapprochement could not be achieved without settlement of the border issue, the Chinese have now shifted tactics by maintaining that the "border talks are not urgent."
This intriguing change in emphasis in Sino-Soviet diplomacy has prompted Moscow to push the issue into the open. Analysts here believe that the Russians would like to have the issue settled once and for all. What causes particular uneasiness here, they point out, is the fact that the absence of a solution on this sensitive issue could always serve as a pretext to those in the Peking hierarchy who want to block a rapprochement between the two countries.
Above all, Moscow's main objective is seen by analysts here as encouraging the Peking leadership to take a position of equidistance between Moscow and Washington.
In pursuing this goal, the Russians seem intent on keeping the United States off balance and guessing about the future of Sino-Soviet ties while the slow process of their restoration is under way.
The outcome of Shultz's visit to Peking undoubtedly will be carefully scrutinized here for signs that could suggest that some form of a special relationship between China and the United States may have survived the U.S.-Chinese dispute over Taiwan.