Every American president knows that he has the "China card" in his kit of diplomatic tools. So it is not surprising that President Reagan is using it as he seeks to toughen the US posture vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. But is he moving too quickly in agreeing "in principle" to sell lethal arms to the People's Republic? That represents a dramatic change in policy and it is not clear what advantage the United States gains from it.
For Secretary of State Alexander Haig to go to Peking in an effort to keep Sino-American relations on Steady course was proper. The US cannot slight a nation of one billion people which will one day be a dominant power in the world. Just as it became imperative to restore diplomatic relations with Peking , so it remains vital in strategic and economic terms to continue improving ties. The fact that China today is marching away from Maoist dogmatism and toward a more pragmatic, less ideologically hidebound society justifies this rapprochement all the more.
Nor can it be denied that warming up to Peking is a legitimate diplomatic tack within the framework of Soviet-American relations. The Soviet Union remains the bigger threat to the United States and is more hostile than China. It clearly helps to counterbalance and mitigate overwhelming Soviet power by leaning in the direction of Peking. But the question is: how far should the US lean? Do arms sales fit the bounds of prudent diplomacy?
The problem is that once you have played the China card you have played the China card. In this instance the United States appears to be getting nothing in return for loosening restrictions on weapons sales and indeed may risk propelling the Soviet Union, China's adversary, into further aggressive actions. Some analysts believe it would make better sense to hold this China card "in suspense" and use it skillfully to help restrain undesirable Soviet actions -- such as an invasion of Poland. But as the Reagan policy now is developing -- with its harsh anti-Soviet rhetoric and reluctance to negotiate any time soon -- it would seem the Soviet leaders are being given little incentive for moderate behavior.
Mr. Haig has carefully avoided suggesting that the US might be establishing an alliance with the People's Republic. Certainly it would be unfortunate if this idea gained currency in Moscow. The danger is that such a perception could freeze Soviet-American relations into permanent hostility, which could have grave consequences for world stability. Given the nuclear might of the Soviet Union, the paramount need to maintain reasonable relations with Moscow is self-evident.
Of course, the US agreement to ease controls over arms sales to China has more symbolic than practical meaning at this juncture. The Chinese may like the idea of a license to shop, but they do not have the resources to buy large quantities of military equipment. Nor is the US, scrambling to bolster its own defenseS, in a position to produce very many arms for the People's Republic. Therefore providing China with limited weaponry -- antitank weapons, for instance -- is not likely to have any real effect on the balance of power in the next few years. That being so, it again is hard to see what is to be gained now by a move that is provocative to Moscow.
There is also the ccomplication of Taiwan. Plainly Mr. Haig could not assure his Chinese hosts that the US would not sell advanced military equipment to Taiwan -- a step which would seriously impair US relations with Peking and make arms sales to China academic. The Chinese therefore are reserving judgment about the new warmth from Washington. They will wait to see precisely how President Reagan confronts the sensitive Taiwan issue and whether in fact he stands up to the militant right wing of his party and resists restoring a degree of "officiality" to ties with Taiwan.
Behind the "hearts and flowers" welcome for Alexander Haig in Peking, in short, are a host of unanswered questions. The President cannot be faulted for pursuing a closer relationship with communist China. We applaud him for this. But it is far from clear that his administration has thought through the ramifications of this policy for, among other things, East-We st relations. It might be wise to proceed cautiously.