The Chinese have not said that they actually want to buy any American guns. Indeed, they seem to be less eager to think in terms of weapons from the US for China than are some people in Washington. But the Chinese are obviously interested in what the US possesses today in the way of modern military technology and weapons.
Their interest is currently expressed by the presence in the US of Deputy Prime Minister Geng Biao who as head of the Chinese Communist Party's military affairs commission is the equivalent of a minister of defense. An advance party led by Liu Huaquing, a deputy chief of staff of the Chinese armed forces, has been in the US getting things ready for Mr. Geng.
The advance party has been touring the defense plants run by such major US industries as IBM, Westinghouse, and the Detroit motor companies. Their interests seems to be in all military branches, particularly perhaps in communications.
The visit is a follow-up to the visit US Defense Secretary Harold Brown made to China in January immediately following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At that time Secretary Brown informed the Chinese government that the US was ready to change its policies in respect to China and would make available to China certain categories of materials having possible military use which are on the banned list for the Soviet Union.
Until the Brown visit the US had been following an official policy of "evenhandedness" toward the Soviet Union and China; nothing for China that wasn't also available to the Soviets. That policy had actually been modified a little to China's advantage beginning with President Nixon's trip to China in 1972. But the official policy continued to be one of "evenhandedness" until that invasion of Afghanistan. The question now is how much and what kind of military aid should go from the US to China.
The subject is made more interesting by the fact that during the last half of May the Chinese launched two successful intercontinental-range ballistic missile shots in the Pacific. Both shots landed on target (observed by both Chinese and Western ships) in the South Pacific about 700 miles from Fiji. They had been fired from Chinese nuclear sites in Xinjiang Province -- a distance of over 6, 000 miles.
This does not make China a major nuclear power. But it does establish the fact that the Chinese are catching up by their own unaided efforts and may become one someday. They already have intermediate-range missiles fitted with nuclear warheads which can reach most military targets in the Soviet Union. The latest successful launchings mean that they have mastered the technology of the long-range shot. It is a reasonable estimate that within another year or two they will be able to deploy several of these longer-range weapons complete with nuclear warheads.
In thinking about what the US should do or not do to help China along toward becoming a modern military power there is one extremely important fact to be borne in mind. At present there are 46 Soviet divisions deployed along the Chinese Frontier. This is a larger number than the Soviets deploy along the northern NATO front in Europe. Also, perhaps as much as ten percent of Soviet nuclear weapons are deployed against China.
Every unit of Soviet military power which is pinned down fighting Afghan rebels and occupied policing the Chinese frontier is one unit fewer which is available for potential use, or interim psychological pressure on, the US and on its main allies of Western Europe and Japan. Roughly 25 percent of Soviet conventional military power is committed today to the Chinese front. About ten percent more is in active use in Afghanistan. This reverses the situation during the Vietnam war when roughly half of America's available military power was committed to Vietnam while Moscow could, had it chosen to do so, have deployed its entire strength against the NATO allies and Japan.
This situation is an important feature of the present balance of military power. Any change in it would be to the disadvantage of the US and its allies. It follows from the above that the US should in its interest do those things which would help both China and Afghanistan keep substantial proportions of Soviet military power tied down in central Asia, hence unavailable for putting pressure on the US, on the NATO allies, and on Japan. The more Soviet strength is tied down in the heart of Asia the less there is for use on any other potential front.
It is Chinese conventional military strength which draws Soviet conventional strength to central Asia. And, since US withdrawal from Vietnam, Chinese conventional military strength has ceased to be a danger to US interests.China has no capability of projecting its conventional weapons beyond its own coasts and frontiers. Without sea-lift it is no threat to Taiwan, or to Japan. It is today occupied exclusively with balancing off as best it can Soviet power in Asia.
Chinese nuclear power is a different matter. While China presently pursues policies which "parallel" those of the US and of its allies this will not necessarily always be the case. Washington is no more happy about another nuclear power with a long-range capability than is Moscow. So while it is in the US interest to have China helping to balance off Moscow's nuclear weapons, there is no net advantage to the US in having China move faster or massively into the ranks of a major nuclear power.
Conclusion. Help China to develop modern conventional defensive capability, but be cautious about doing anything which might cause Moscow to think again in terms of a possible "preventive" attack on China.In other words, there is no net gain by aiding China's nuclear capability. There would be danger in helping to build Chinese offensive capability. But there is much to be gained for the allies from improving China's defenses.