As detente with the Soviet Union continues to fade, the question of how to proceed with the People's Republic of China (PRC) assumes greater immediacy. Doubting the value of cooperative methods of coping with the USSR, and left by his predecessor with a policy that has been reoriented toward Peking but not stabilized on its new path, President-elect Ronald Reagan will confront major decisions on China policy.
Three separate impulses guided Mr. Reagan's approach to China during the presidential campaign. The young China specialist most publicly identified with Mr. Reagan is Michael Pillsbury. A former Rand Corporation analyst, he has been foreign policy adviser to a group of New Right US senators, including Jake Garn (R) of Utah and Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina. Pillsbury has been a frank advocate of military sales to China since 1975, when he was the first to broach the sensitive subject in public. Reagan is on record as approving military exports to the Chinese.
Richard L. Walker, a China scholar at the University of South Carolina, is less visible but also influential. Walker is said to have strongly opposed severing ties with Taiwan in 1978. In a much-heralded statement during the campaign, Reagan advocated resuming official relations with Taiwan.
Other Republican foreign policy advisers recommend security cooperation with the Chinese, short of supplying military hardware. One such advocate suggests joint military planning enabling the US to support the Chinese should they become involved in a major war, presumably with the USSR.
Apprehension about Mr. Reagan's China policy centers not so much upon which of the advisers will occupy key posts at the State Department or National Security Council but on how well Mr. Reagan will be able to orchestrate the conflicting views they represent into a coherent set of policies.
Despite differences in the countries and situations involved, the rocky history of US-Soviet detente during the 1970s can provide certain lessons for developing relations with the Chinese. As the US found, conflicting approaches lacking central direction can severely complicate relations with another major power. Many observers believe that swings over the past four years from conciliatory to cold war rhetoric towards the USSR not only confused the American public but increased Soviet uncertainty about US intentions and may have fueled Soviet internal forces arguing for decisive action like that taken in Afghanistan.
Like Jimmy Carter in 1976, Reagan is a neophyte in foreign policy matters. It is unclear whether he has sufficient sensitivity about international politics to distinguish wisely among conflicting lines of foreign policy advice. China specialists see signs of inconsistency already, warning that reopening the Taiwan question could sidetrack the expansion of US-PRC ties.
Great expectations now are bein raised in the US and the PRC about the mutual benefits from improving relations, much as hopes were high for US-Soviet detente in the early 1970s. The prospect of profitable trade, Chinese desires for Western technology to speed economic modernization, and US desires to discourage disruptive Chinese activities in the developing countries, are almost a mirror-image of US and Soviet hopes at the outset of the last decade.
Some of these expectations may be disappointed. American firms report bureaucratic stalling in Peking similar to that which has troubled US ventures in the USSR. The Chinese still have an agenda in the developing world capable of alarming the US, emphasized by their February 1979 invasion of Vietnam. While agreement in principle may be reached, enduring opposition in the Defense Department and elsewhere in the US government may thwart the export of militarily sensitive technology.
Also, while Chinese officials stress that the PRC has rejected the radical policies of the "gang of four," that it will do "whatever is necessary" to modernize the economy, and that the likelihood of rapprochement with the USSR is "close to zero," Western observers still regard the Chinese political system as unstable and Chinese policy as unpredictable.
Beyond the potential for inconsistency and the overly hopeful view of the benefits to the US, the very priority given to relations with Peking in the Reagan approach is perhaps of greatest concern. The entire spectrum of Reagan camp thinking on China implicitly rejects a cooperative relationship with the Soviet Union by seeking to use relations with the PRC as leverage against the USSR. There is growing talk in Tokyo, Peking, and Washington of a "united front" or "triple alliance" against the USSR in Asia, composed of the US, the PRC, and a potentially rearmed Japan. The Soviets are alarmed about the prospect, and their press now warns against such an alliance.
Certain of American's needs -- decreasing the nuclear threat to itself and its allies first among them -- simply cannot be met through manipulation of relations with China and demand direct dealing with the USSR. Pursuit of relations with the PRC in ways calculated only to foster Soviet insecurity could close off options for coping with problems of mutual interest with the Soviets for a long time to come.