China and East Germany held talks here this week that seem to point to a significant strengthening of their ties, against a background of rapidly expanding Chinese contacts with several Eastern European countries.
Chinese press reports on the talks held here by Horst Sindermann, president of the East German legislature and a member of the Politburo of the Socialist Unity Party, revealed that Sindermann had been given a warm and high-level reception. Sources said that one report appearing in a Chinese "internal" publication, not intended for wide distribution, said that the East German party leader Erich Honecker might visit here next year. The publication displayed the report prominently.
Parallel with an improvement in its relations with the Soviet Union, Peking has for more than a year now been expanding its ties with Eastern European nations allied with the Soviets. An expansion of ties with East Germany would fit with the emphasis China has placed in recent years on conveying an independent foreign policy image.
An East German Embassy official responded cautiously to a query concerning a possible visit by Honecker to China but acknowledged that it was a possibility. He said that no date had been set. Should Honecker come to China next year, it could turn out to be the first top-level visit by the leader of a country closely tied to the Soviet Union in more than two decades.
Sindermann leaves here Friday following a visit today to Shanghai.
China currently has extensive relations with West Germany, which is China's fourth-largest trading partner. Its leading trading partners are Japan, the United States and Hong Kong.
In a report released earlier this week on the Sindermann visit, the official New China News Agency quoted China's Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang as saying that China and East Germany should greatly increase their trade.
Diplomats said it was significant that the official Chinese news agency referred to Sindermann at one point by his Politburo title, a courtesy not always accorded to the East Germans, because the two countries have had no formal Communist Party relations for more than 20 years.
The Chinese have long had fairly good relations with Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania, all of which have pursued economic and political policies that differed from those of the Soviets. But diplomats said that an improvement of relations with East Germany, a country closely linked to the Soviet Union, could only come if the Soviets approved of the development.
A western diplomat said today that the Chinese do not lump all of the Eastern Europeans together with the Soviets when it comes to technology. In some areas, the Chinese apparently regard the East Germans, Czechoslovaks and Hungarians as holding a major edge over the Soviets in the development and management of new technologies. Diplomats believe that one of the reasons for China's expanding contacts with Soviet Bloc nations is the possible benefits from technology exchanges with those countries.
The Chinese signed a major, five-year trade agreement with the Soviets in July of this year and now apparently regard their trade with most Eastern European countries as abnormally low.
But there are limits on how far the Chinese can go in trading with either the Soviets or their Eastern European partners. The biggest constraint is that most of the trade with the Soviet Bloc countries is conducted on a cumbersome barter basis. Unlike western nations, the Soviet Bloc nations are not capable of paying in hard currency. The other constraint is a continuing reliance on western nations to be the main providers of technology for China's modernization program.
"We hear from the Chinese all the time that they really look to the West for what they want, and primarily the United States," a western diplomat said.
Earlier this year, Chinese Vice Premier Li Peng is reported to have presided over a major conference aimed at improving trade relations with Eastern Europe. Li is currently on a visit to Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. An East European diplomat said that he will stop in Moscow on his way back to Peking.