Playing the China card

THIS week's visit to China by Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, apparently to be followed later in the month by a port call to China by US warships, comes at what can only be called a propitious moment for Washington, as well as Peking. The visits, whatever the nature of the initial planning involved, add up to an important diplomatic and strategic gesture to Peking, coming against the backdrop of the US-Soviet ``pre-summit'' taking place this weekend in Iceland.

Granted, a Weinberger visit has been in the works for some time now. But there had been no hint of a port call by the warships. Indeed, in the context of the past several decades, having US ships actually set sail for the Chinese mainland must be considered unprecedented. The last time US warships visited the mainland was in 1949 -- when the USS Dixie evacuated Americans from Shanghai during the communist revolution.

What is interesting in the current diplomatic framework -- what with preparation for the meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev now under way on both sides of the Atlantic -- is that the announcement of the port call came not from Washington, but from Peking. That must have caught Moscow's attention. Indeed, Chinese Defense Minister Zhang Aiping and Chinese Foreign Minister Wu Xuequian announced the visit during events marking China's Oct. 1 National Day last week, about the same time the Nicholas Daniloff-Gennady Zakharov exchange was being wrapped up.

As of this writing, it appears the warships will visit Qingdao. Qingdao is not your ordinary coastal fishing village. It is the home of China's ``north sea'' fleet, 500 vessels-strong, across the water from North Korea, which has close diplomatic links to Moscow and (as the crow flies) not so very far from Vladivostok, the main northern hub for the Soviet Union's Pacific Fleet.

Mr. Weinberger has long advocated a close, although carefully calibrated, US diplomatic and military relationship with Peking -- in particular stressing US support for a modernization of Chinese defense forces.

Whether the United States is deliberately playing its ``China card'' to the hilt this week, or just following through with continuing plans for more-cordial defense ties, the message of the Weinberger and port call visits cannot be lost on Moscow.

Mr. Gorbachev has been pushing his own version of a Moscow-Peking card. In a speech at Vladivostok last summer, he noted that the Soviet Union was an ``Asia-Pacific power.'' He held out hope of Soviet troop reductions in Afghanistan, as well as a resolution of the Chinese-Soviet border dispute.

The Soviets, it should be recalled, maintain substantial defense forces on their eastern borders with China -- and are thus incurring huge defense costs in the process. The Weinberger visit, and the US port call, assuming the latter goes forward, are clear reminders to the Kremlin that finding a way to reduce Soviet defense commitments on its eastern front will not come easy. The visits are also reminders to Moscow that whatever happens at Reykjavik this weekend, the US-Soviet relationship is not the only ball game in town.

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