China -- the arms factor

Among the array of measures the US is taking or contemplating to counter the Soviet lunge into Afghanistan, none is probably of greater concern to Moscow than the warming of Sino-American relations. The Harold Brown mission to Peking was planned long before the Afghan events. But there is no question it has been carefully exploited to send political warning signals to the Kremlin. If the Soviet Union insists on making conquests by military means, the message in effect is, the US has a strategic interest in cooperating more closely -- perhaps even militarily -- with the People's Repubic of China.

President Carter cannot be faulted for conveniently taking advantage of the Defense Secretary's visit to drive home to the Russians the risk they take in their current policy. It is natural that the US and China, which has a border with Afghanistan, should be discussing issues of global and regional strategy in the face of Soviet expansionism. If that makes the Russians uneasy, splendid. But it should be realized that the US plays a perilous game if that dialogue spills into outright military cooperating with China.

Deputy Premier Deng Xiaoping may be delighted to say that "China and the United States should do something in a down-to-earth way so as to defend world peace against Soviet hegemonism." But if that "something" turns out to be the supply of US arms to China, the Russians could become even more emboldened. Military planners in the Kremlin are haunted by the thought of a remilitarized China on their borders (even the seizure of Afghanistan may be seen in part to reflect that long-range concern). If they perceived the Us was indeed joining Peking in an alliance of sorts against the USSR -- even while strengthening NATO defenses on Russia's western border -- they might conclude that preemptive military measures were in order. Indeed the Chinese themselves appear chary of giving the Russians the impression such an alliance is being sought.

The Carter administration maintains it will not provide weapons to China. We hope this is so. Besides the implications of an arms policy for Soviets calculations, there arises the political and moral question of whether the US should supply a potentially power communist nation with military equipment. China, for all its current friendliness to the West, is after all a highly authoritarian country with an inimical ideology. It will necessarily pursue its own interests. Someday, when it is a strong military and economic power, these interests may conflict with those of the West. Such long-range considerations should not be lost sight of.

Selling China a ground station to receive information from the US satellite known as Landsat D, as Mr. Brown announced the US is prepared to do, falls in a gray area. The equipment is designed for civilian use but could be adapted to military purposes. While the sale appears useful as a pointed political signal to the Soviets, it raises disturbing questions if it marks the opening of the door to substantive defense cooperation. Appearing to threaten such open cooperation may be good diplomacy in the Afghan crisis. Actually cooperating could invite unforeseen consequences in the delicate maneuverings of triangular politics.

The US will have to move astutely. Realistically it cannot ignore the diplomatic benefits of engaging the China factor. But, recognizing that the US-Soviet relationship is still the most important to world stability, it must be careful not to go so far as to give the Russians an excuse for irreversibly damaging that relationship. The Brown visit has resulted in agreement on independent and mutually reinforcing -- not joint -- responses to the Soviet aggression and even these were not spelled out, suggesting that the US understands the potential pitfalls of the game it plays.

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