Denying that it has any claim to Soviet territory, China indicated today that it is willing to drop its preconditions that have stalemated negotiations to settle the Sino-Soviet border dispute.
The indication came in an article prepared for the journal World Affairs and published in advance by the authoritative People's Daily. It was described as a response to the recent attack in the Soviet magazine New Times, which accused Peking of staking claim to 577,000 square miles of Soviet land in an effort to "retard the process of normalization" of relations.
Foreign analysts here noted that today's article significantly omitted past Chinese prerequisites for a border agreement that have deadlocked negotiations to demarcate the 4,500-mile, heavily militarized boundary line since 1969.
It was unclear, however, if the article was a definitive projection of Peking's stance or a more narrowly drafted salvo in the ongoing written war between the two Communist capitals.
Previously, Peking has denied it has any hope of regaining the huge tracts of land in the Soviet Far East that were taken from China by czarist Russia in a series of 19th- and 20th-century treaties. But it consistently has called for a Soviet acknowledgment that those treaties were "unequal" and the territory unfairly ceded.
In addition, Peking has demanded as a precondition for any final settlement the prior pullout of all Soviet troops from two areas it claims were taken from China beyond the "unequal treaties"--specifically, 3,900 square miles in Soviet central Asia and several hundred islands in the Ussuri and Amur border rivers near Vladivostok.
Chinese officials earlier had insisted in principle on return of those areas while making clear their readiness to compromise because of current Soviet occupation.
Today's article berated Moscow's New Times for launching "wanton slanderous attacks against China's principled stand" and for flaunting "as credit the inglorious history of czarist Russia's aggression against China."
But its failure to cite as preconditions for a border agreement either Soviet acknowledgment of past wrongs or prior pullout of Soviet forces led western diplomats here to believe the article might mark a shift in Peking's negotiating position.
The article was signed by "Commentator," suggesting it was written or cleared by a senior Chinese official.
"China has no territorial claims whatsoever on the Soviet Union nor does it demand the return of territories ceded to czarist Russia under a series of unequal treaties, but stands for an overall solution to the border issue through peaceful negotiations by taking into consideration the actual conditions, and on the basis of the above-mentioned treaties," according to the article.
Arch-rivals for the past 20 years, Peking and Moscow have been discussing their border differences intermittently since the brief but bloody Ussuri River clash of 1969.
Moscow has sought to revive the talks suspended three years ago, but the Chinese side rejected the offer as futile and had demanded that the border problem be separated from broader political consultations between the two sides that began in October and will resume in March.
Peking's interest, however, may have been whetted when a top Soviet Communist Party leader told Japanese journalists in November that talks with China could result in a withdrawal of Soviet troops from the contested frontier.
According to recent Japanese military reports, the Soviet Union maintains 450,000 well-equipped troops along China's northern border facing 1.5 million Chinese forces.
The New Times blast earlier this month accused China of "keeping the border issue as a ready-made sure expedient for retarding the process of normalization. To this end, the border settlement is replaced by territorial claims made on the Soviet Union."
Citing past maps and writings in Chinese academic journals, New Times said that "claims are being advanced more and more persistently to Soviet territories alleged to have belonged to China at one time," despite the fact that the lands in question were "actually never part of the Chinese state nor was their population Chinese."
The attack was considered unexpectedly sharp because of Moscow's assiduous efforts this past year to normalize relations with its Communist neighbor.
Bilateral relations, once icy, have seen steady improvement in recent months with trade increasing, mutual polemics lessened and exchanges of cultural and sports figures becoming more common. One sign of the thaw is the sudden appearance of Russian vodka in foreigners-only restaurants of Peking.
In this light, the World Affairs article published today in People's Daily is seen as a Chinese attempt to turn a Soviet attack into possible grounds for compromise.
The Chinese commentator dismissed as "totally groundless" the New Times accusation that Chinese scholars were laying claim to Soviet territory in their historical surveys.
Not only does China abjure any interest in Soviet lands, said the commentator, it sincerely hopes for better Sino-Soviet ties and "will make continuous efforts toward the end in the belief that the normalization of relations between the two countries fully corresponds with the fundamental interests of the Chinese and Soviet people and will serve peace in Asia and the world."