It is not surprising that during these anxious days of waiting to see how the Kremlin finally decides to handle its Polish problem several people in Washington have talked about sending guns to China as a penalty if the Soviets do get rough with the Poles.
Sen. Charles Percy of Illinois first aired the idea in a television interview on March 29. A week later Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger said that as yet there was no decision to link the matter of guns to China with possible Soviet action against the Polish people.
The two cautious remarks are enough to show that the Reagan administration has been making a list of things it might do to penalize the Soviets if they do what all friends of Poland hope they will not do.
Anyone drawing up such a list would be inclined to include the idea of guns to China, but it is a reasonable guess that extremely careful thought would be given to the matter before such a step were actually taken.
Moscow's relations with Poland and US guns to China are two quite different things in nature and kind.
Moscow's problem is whether the Poles are to be allowed to gain true independence, which they have not enjoyed since the beginning of World War II. They were overrun first by the Germans, then by the Soviets. Since 1945 they have been, in effect, prisoners of Moscow, ruled over by agents originally picked by the Kremlin to manage their affairs in the interests of the Kremlin.
Ever since 1945 the Poles have been yearning for independence and gradually working in that direction. They are not at this point far from it -- provided the Soviets would allow them to have it. If Moscow were to stand aside and allow events to take their natural course, Poland would become a democracy in which the state apparatus would have gone to govern with the consent of the people acting through powerful and independent unions a and through the Roman Catholic Church.
So the issue in Poland is whether Moscow will intervene to prevent the Poles seizing that independence which any Westerner wishes for them, but which Moscow cannot grant without risking the loss of its military frontiers in central Europe.
If it happens Washington will, of course, react in ways which will express profound disapproval. It would certainly continue the grain embargo and probably try to think of further economic sanctions. The time when arms talks could be resumed would be put farther into the uncertain future. But drastic Soviet action in Poland would fall under the category of Moscow trying to hang onto what it has had since 1945. It would not be a new offensive action against the United States.
The sending of US guns to China would be an offensive action aimed at the Soviet Union. It would mean a major and perhaps decisive turning point in history.
Right now there are three major powers in the world -- the United States, the Soviet Union, and China. The US enjoys the most favorable postion in this triangular situation. It is in diplomatic relations with both. It is not committed to either one against the other.
But China and the Soviet Union are in a state of hostility with each other. They both man their common frontier heavily. Border incidents are common.
This gives the US the ability to play the balance-of-power role toward the other two important powers. The US keeps its own diplomatic relations open with both. It happens to have easier relations right now with China than with the Soviets. But it retains the ability to shift the position if it chooses.
Washington will continue to enjoy the favorable position in the triangle so long as it does not commit itself irrevocably with Moscow against Peking or with Peking against Moscow. The sending of arms to either one would amount to a commitment. US guns to China would seem to anyone in the Kremlin to be a decisively hostile act.
That would be a big step indeed, a step to be taken only as a last resort. It is a step which can be taken only once. The "China card" amounts to the ace of trumps in the present triangular game. It is the most powerful card in the deck -- until it is played Once played, it is gone and useless.
It is routine power politics to hint at the possibility of playing that card. it might amount to a deterrent of sorts, probably not. But actually to play it before the last possible moment in vital confrontation would be imprudent.