Guns for China

If the Chinese had decided that they wanted to buy certain modern American weapons, there would be a good reason to consider seriously whether to let them do so.

There is no hard indication that they either want to buy American weapons or have the money those weapons would cost.

Yet Secretary of State Alexander Haig made a big thing when in Peking in mid-June of announcing the removal of US regulations on the purchase of lethal weapons by China.

That visit produced another startling bit of news.

While the Haig delegation was in Peking "senior American officials" in Peking were quoted as confirming that the US has set up inside China, near the Soviet frontier, a monitoring station for keeping watch on Soviet nuclear testing.

The station is American-made. It is operated by Chinese personnel. The two countries share the intelligence obtained. US technicians visit the facility from time to time. It was set up after the fall of the Shah, in late 1979, closed down similar US monitoring facilities in Iran.

It is doubtful that the existence of the tracking station in China was long a secret from the Soviets. They probably watched it being built from their reconaissance satellites, just as Washington watches such things going on in the Soviet Union from Western reconaissance satellites. But there was no public mention of the existence of this joint US-Chinese intelligence facility until those "senior American officials" in Peking chose to confirm the story to journalists covering the Haig visit in Peking.

Add that there was no Soviet protest about the joint Chinese-American intelligence-gathering venture until the matter became public knowledge. But when the story was reported from Peking and printed in Western papers, the Soviet propaganda machine went into high gear.

What useful purpose was served by those two big news events from the Haig visit to Peking?

From the American point of view the modernization of China's armed forces is desirable. The equipment of China's forces is about 20 years out of date. Most of it dates from 1950 to 1960 when China and the Soviet Union were formal and official allies. Modern equipment would have the tendency of pinning down more Soviet forces in Central Asia, thus taking them out of play in other parts of the world.

But China's treasury is under severe strain. Ambitious plans for industrial modernization have had to be cut back or put aside. The Chinese armed forces have sent shopping teams to many countries. They began to place orders, particularly in France and Britain, but they have since cut back on some of the orders signed about a year ago. They can't afford them. What they can afford can be had from the French or British without much fuss or trouble to anyone. The availability of American weapons will not advance substantially the quality, quantity, or time of the modernization of the Chinese armed forces.

One theory is that selling US arms to China will make Moscow more amenable to US wishes. The reverse is more likely true. If Washington sells guns to a China which is in a state of hostility with the Soviet Union, then the logical Soviet reaction is to feel both the need and the justification to do similar unfriendly things in the American neighborhood.

Washington is proposing also to sell weapons to Pakistan. Pakistan like China is a neighbor of the Soviet Union. Moscow does not enjoy having the latest American weapons go to its neighbors any more than Americans like to have Soviet guns going to Cuba and El Salvador.

It is doubtful that the Soviets are seriously worried about the possibility of American guns going to China. They know how short of funds the Chinese are. They are making more noise about the new trend toward a military alliance between Peking and Washington than their probable inner feelings justify.

But the Soviets can use it for propaganda. It diverts world attention from things the Soviets do. It gives them in their own eyes justification for such things as the occupation of Afghanistan. It may make them more inclined to send their tanks into Poland.

In other words, offering guns to China and disclosing a joint intelligence facility in China has all the overtones of amate urism in foreign policy. This is not grown-up stuff.

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