Asia cautions US: go slow on arms sales to China

American arms sales to China would be welcomed by some in the West. They believe such sales would put new pressure on the Soviet Union by forcing it to deploy more soldiers on its border with China.

But throughout Asia there are widespread reservations over this approach. The reason is distrust of China's long- term intentions.

This lingering distrust contrasts sharply with the gradual turnaround in American attitudes toward China.

Much of noncommunist Asia has welcomed the coming of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. But while Americans increasingly see China as a "card" to be played against the Soviet Union, Asians tend to see China as a baby giant who may seek to dominate its backyard when it grows up.

Now there are increasing signs that the Reagan administration is, in fact, moving toward selling arms to China:

* During a June trip to China Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. declared the US was ready "in principle" to sell arms to China. He refrained from spelling out what kind of weapons the US might sell. But he emphasized any sales would evolve at a "slow and measured and prudent" pace.

* More recently the US ambassador designate to China, Arthur Hummel, testified it is in America's interest to promote a military balance between China and the Soviet Union. He did not forsee sales to China of offensive weapons such as missiles or bombers. China has expressed interest in antitank weapons and air defenses, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which "should not be considered offensive."

Asian reaction to the sales will depend on what and how much is actually sold. Asian countries will want to be consulted in the making of these decisions.

Many asian nations look with favor on the moderate foreign policy followed by China since the death of Chairman Mao Tse-tung in 1976. For Japan it has meant profits from trade and investment. For Southeast Asia it has meant a reduction of Chinese support for guerrilla insurgents. And for India it has meant the opportunity to begin discussions on border disputes which led to war in 1962.

At the same time Japan and Southeast Asia have serious reservations about any American policy that too quickly builds up China's military strength.

Many Japanese strongly oppose any US effort to strengthen anti-Soviet Chinese military power if this policy is a substitute for a strong American military presence in the Pacific. They would see this as an "abdication" of American responsibilities in Asia.

Many Japanese also fear that if America sells large amounts of arms to China, this could sharpen the already bitter dispute between China and the Soviet Union. The result, they think, could increase tensions in Asia and make it more difficult for Japan to have sound economic and political ties with both China and the Soviet Union.

There is also Japanese concern that a close military tie between China and the United States could "freeze out" Japan and substitute China as its chief Asian ally.

Although most noncommunist Southeast Asian countries welcome China as a force helping to protect them from what they see as an expansionist Vietnam. But they still strongly distrust China's long-term intentions.

They know that China's moderate foreign policy could quickly change, especially if a new leadership follows that of Deng Xiao-ping. And they know that a China armed with modern weapons would be in a better position to demand its own way -- a way not always in line with the wishes its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Despite their entreaties, China has refused to sever its links with Marxist guerrillas in Southeast Asia. Countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, with large ethnic Chinese minorities, remain fearful China will eventually use these as a "fifth column" should circumstances change.

But China's neighbors worry about the future. A China emboldened by an arms buildup could use the threat of increased support for these groups as a club to bully Southeast Asian neighbors into line.

At present continuing Asian suspicions of China are muted because of a widespread desire to avoid ruffling feathers and to get along. But if the United States decides to sell large quantities of arms to China, Asian reservations could become more vocal.

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