A few hours after a top Soviet envoy ended week-long talks here, China tonight called on Moscow to compensate the families of passengers killed in the Korean airliner incident.
The call by China's Foreign Ministry went further than previous remarks in holding Moscow accountable for the Sept. 1 downing of the civilian airliner, which had included dozens of Hong Kong residents and Taiwanese among its 269 passengers and crew.
Peking has been unusually restrained in handling the airliner tragedy so as to maintain the steady course of improved relations it has set with the Kremlin after a 20-year rivalry, diplomats said.
A week of consultations with Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Kapitsa, who left Peking this morning, produced no known breakthroughs, according to diplomats. But the visit by Kapitsa, the highest Soviet official invited by the Chinese government since the 1960s, was significant for airing several strategic issues blocking normalized relations between the two Communist powers, diplomats said.
The issues involving Moscow's advanced military positioning in Asia have been separated from the formal series of normalization talks scheduled to resume here next month.
Kapitsa said at an impromptu airport news conference that he has invited his counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, to Moscow to continue talks on the strategic matters, which include Moscow's continued deployment of medium-range SS20 missiles in Asia, its stationing of troops in Afghanistan and on China's northern border and its support for Vietnamese forces in Cambodia.
"We have opened a new channel of contact, this time on international issues," Kapitsa told reporters.
It was unclear if Qian has accepted the invitation. At the airport, he restated Peking's concern about Moscow's aggressive military posture.
"We must not forget there are still obstacles in the way of Sino-Soviet relations," he said. "These cannot be evaded."
The Foreign Ministry issued its statement on compensation several hours later. According to diplomats, Peking apparently felt constrained to represent the interests of Chinese "compatriots" aboard the doomed airliner so as not to be upstaged by the rival Chinese government in Taipei.
The spokesman said the bereaved families were entitled to redress in accordance with international practice in compensating victims of civilian aircraft disasters.
"This incident concerns how to safeguard the established norms ensuring the safety of international civil aviation in the future and the compensation for bereaved families," the statement said.
In the initial period after the plane was shot down, Chinese officials restricted themselves publicly to expressions of "shock and regret."
At the U.N. Security Council Monday, China abstained from voting on a resolution deploring the Soviet attack. Chinese representative Ling Qing said the downing was "a serious violation of the established norms ensuring safety of civil aviation."
But, he explained, China chose to abstain from the resolution because of "the serious dispute over certain aspects of this incident."
According to a Chinese source in Peking, China viewed the resolution as a "political move" by the United States to condemn Moscow. He said Peking decided against joining the condemnation to avoid the appearance of partiality in the contest between superpowers.
Diplomats said Kapitsa expressed his government's appreciation to Peking for its restrained response to the downing of the plane. But he reportedly chided the Chinese media for publishing western accounts of the issue.
He is said to have told Qian and Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian that China has more in common with the socialist camp than the capitalist West. Moscow and its East European satellite nations recently have urged Peking to declare itself part of the socialist camp and to denounce the United States as an imperialist force.
Peking has been steering an even course between Washington and Moscow, criticizing each for "hegemonism." Nevetheless, Chinese leaders repeatedly tell western visitors they consider the Soviet Union to be the greatest danger to world peace.
Kapitsa also is said to have proposed increases in Sino-Soviet trade with the eventual aim of matching China's trade with the United States, which exceeded $5 billion last year. China's trade with the Soviet Union this year amounts to less than one fifth of that.
Diplomats said Kapitsa offered Soviet help to update Chinese factories that were built by Soviet advisers in the 1950s and have become obsolescent over the years.