The rise to power of a new Soviet leader is likely to set the stage for a further limited improvement in Sino-Soviet relations, according to diplomats here.
The Chinese were quick to offer Moscow an olive branch. In the first official reaction from Peking to the death of Soviet President Konstantin Chernenko, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman tonight praised the deceased Soviet leader and expressed the hope that recent "positive tendencies" in relations between the two communist giants would continue.
The official New China News Agency said the spokesman described Chernenko as an outstanding leader of the Communist Party and of the Soviet Union.
"His passing away is undoubtedly a great loss to the Soviet people and we express our profound condolences on it," the spokesman was quoted as saying.
The Foreign Ministry spokesman noted that not long before his death, Chernenko had expressed hopes for a "further good development of Sino-Soviet relations." Over the past year, the spokesman said, exchanges between China and the Soviet Union have increased noticeably in various fields.
"We hope these positive tendencies in Sino-Soviet relations will further develop," he said.
The Chinese government said it was sending Vice Premier Li Peng to the funeral. While Li Peng ranks lower than the official sent to Yuri Andropov's funeral, he is regarded as an important and upcoming figure.
Two Chinese leaders sent a message of condolence to the Soviets similar to that issued by the Foreign Ministry, the Chinese news agency reported. The message, addressed to the presidium of the Supreme Soviet, came from China's President Li Xiannian and Peng Zhen, chairman of the standing committee of China's National People's Congress.
But this government-to-government message appeared to reflect the limits of how far the Chinese are willing to go in opening to the Soviets at this point.
As expected, there was no message from the Chinese Communist Party to its Soviet counterpart. The Chinese have for years refused to consider an improvement in party-to-party relations unless the Soviets move toward resolving key differences.
Meanwhile, diplomats here said that real Chinese attitudes toward Chernenko have been much more complex than the official words of praise and condolences issued tonight reveal. Far from being considered an advocate of improved relations with China, Chernenko was often viewed in Peking as an obstacle to progress.
Although Sino-Soviet relations improved considerably during Chernenko's year in power, the Soviet leader's words and actions, as seen from here, revealed a markedly ambivalent attitude toward China. The Chinese seemed to view Chernenko from the start as a transitional leader, and one whose instincts did not incline him toward improving relations with China.
His predecessor, Andropov, was seen in a more positive light -- a man who suggested changes but whose health never permitted him to pursue those changes in a sustained way.
"The Chinese felt Chernenko represented a throwback," said one diplomat here.
With Mikhail Gorbachev in power, , however, the Chinese now have, for the first time in several years, a vigorous leader from whom they can expect sustained efforts to improve relations if the Soviets desire to move in that direction.
But western diplomats in Peking said that while the stage was now likely to be set for a further improvement in Sino-Soviet relations, they did not expect any dramatic progress on major issues dividing the two nations. They also noted that Gorbachev is part of a long-standing collective system of leadership that may limit his freedom of action.
Nonetheless, diplomats said a steady improvement in relations with the Soviets would serve Chinese interests in several ways.
First, it would underline China's independent foreign policy line. Second, reducing tensions with the Soviets allows the Chinese to focus on their highest priority -- economic modernization. Finally, the Soviets might be able to contribute to China's modernization in a modest way, building on the industrial base which they helped to create before abruptly leaving in the late 1950s.
But the diplomats cautioned that despite its independent line, China looks first of all to the West and Japan, to the United States in particular, for the technology, trade, and exchanges required for its modernization program.