BEIJING, JAN. 11 -- China played down Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's renewed offer for a Sino-Soviet summit meeting today, failing to mention the proposal in its newspaper and television reports.
Beijing's low-key treatment of a Gorbachev interview in the Chinese weekly magazine Liaowang, or Outlook -- believed to be the first by a Soviet Communist Party leader to Chinese journalists in more than 25 years -- suggests that China is in no hurry to hold a summit and makes it unlikely that such a meeting could take place this year.
But there has been enough steady improvement in bilateral relations to allow for the possibility of a summit, some observers said. An East European specialist predicted that a meeting would take place two years from now, but that for the moment, the Chinese will play hard to get.
The specialist said the Chinese do not want to raise expectations that would pressure Beijing to react positively to the Soviets. The Chinese want to set the pace, he said.
The interview publicized by Tass was published here today in the magazine but not featured elsewhere in the Chinese media. This muted reaction can be attributed in part to the Soviet leader's failure to meet the precondition for a summit set by China's senior leader Deng Xiaoping.
Deng has repeatedly stated that he would not be willing to meet with Gorbachev until the Soviet leader urges Vietnam to withdraw its troops from Cambodia.
In a meeting in early December with Yoshio Sakurauchi, president of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Foreign Trade, Deng reiterated the precondition and also said: "Without Soviet assistance, Vietnam could not fight a single day in Cambodia."
While the Gorbachev interview and summit offer was apparently big news in Moscow, carried by the Soviet official news agency Tass and the Soviet television news show Vremya last night, it was the last item on Chinese television news this evening and no mention was made of the summit proposal.
The newscast devoted less than a minute to Gorbachev's comments and focused on what the Soviet leader said about economic reforms. People's Daily, the leading Communist Party newspaper, carried an account of the interview on an inside page but also failed to mention the proposal for a summit meeting.
Analysts say the Chinese do not want to alarm western nations, particularly the United States, about a possibly dramatic improvement in Sino-Soviet relations at a time when China is counting on the West to help it modernize.
But working in favor of a Sino-Soviet summit would be a Chinese desire to maintain its place in the triangle of big power relations among the United States, the Soviet Union, and China, the analysts said. A Sino-Soviet summit would also serve to remind the United States that it cannot take China for granted, they said.
Beijing's relations with Washington have been under strain recently. American officials have accused the Chinese of selling Silkworm missiles to Iran and Congress has criticized Chinese actions in Tibet. Last week, the United States ordered the expulsion of a military attache at the Chinese Embassy and a consul in Chicago, both on suspicion of spying.
For the last two years, it has usually been the Soviet side that has played up the possibilities of improving relations. The Chinese have reacted cautiously, reiterating the need for progress toward ending the Soviets' support for the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the invasion of Afghanistan, and their military presence along the Chinese border.
But the Chinese have recently begun to acknowledge openly that the two sides can learn from each other as they pursue their respective economic programs.
Vice Premier Tian Jiyun said yesterday that China and the Soviet Union face similar problems. They have witnessed rapid growth in their economic relations and trade, he said, and there is great potential for further development.