Despite the massive student demonstrations that overshadowed this week's historic Sino-Soviet summit, Mikhail Gorbachev still left Beijing with another diplomatic triumph under his belt.
But it's a triumph that consists more of symbolism than of concrete achievements. Consequently, there are sharp limits to how much the Free World needs to worry - at least at this point - about the renewal of friendly relations between the USSR and China.By agreeing to withdraw some Soviet troops along the border with China, Gorbachev enables both nations to devote more of their resources to civilian needs, needs that are particularly pressing in the USSR's case.
Moreover, by renouncing claims to dictate policy to the entire communist world and by initiating the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years, Moscow has started a process that could eventually help make the world more stable.
But the mutual antagonisms aroused during the past three decades cannot be eradicated with a single meeting at the top. The USSR and China still have deep cultural differences as well as different aims.
As the Los Angeles Times notes, "there is still no common ground (between the USSR and China) on the political future of Cambodia, while a deep awareness remains of often bitter national rivalries going back 800 years."
The student demonstrations for democratic reforms in China plus the USSR's deteriorating economy indicate that neither nation can serve as a model for the other. The USSR needs technology that China cannot provide; China needs investment capital that the USSR cannot spare. This means that both communist powers still must rely heavily on the West.
Chinese leaders politely but firmly rebuffed Gorbachev's suggestions that they join in a campaign against American nuclear forces and military bases in Asia.
While the USSR and China agreed to some unspecified military-related talks, Chinese officials are said to have made it clear that new Sino-Soviet ties would not be made at the expense of the close relations existing between Beijing and Washington.
The continuing closeness of U.S.-Chinese relations is indicated by this week's visit of three American warships to Shanghai. Moreover, New-house News Service reports that the United States still maintains in northwest China a secret listening post designed to monitor Soviet missile tests.
It would be a mistake to entirely rule out the possibility that the new relationship between the USSR and China could eventually turn into another aggressive partnership like the one that menaced the world in the early 1950s. But for now there's some reason to be hopeful and little reason to lose sleep over the latest Sino-Soviet developments.