US and China: go slow on arms

With the United States agreeing in principle to sell conventional weapons to China, the two nations are forging a far-closer military linkage than they have had - at least since the Communist government came to power in 1949.

A formal agreement has yet to be announced. At this stage, officials are only publicly stating that they have agreed to continue negotiations, with a ''possibility'' of agreements being signed at a later time. That would come, assuming it does, after the return to Peking of Zhang Aiping, China's defense minister. He will tour the US until late June.

An agreement regarding one or two conventional-weapons sales would represent a first for the two sides. And given China's recent somewhat-tentative diplomatic discussions with the Soviet Union, it would seem only prudent for the Chinese to delay any announcement until Mr. Zhang is home to help play down any hint of military combination with the US against the Soviets. China shares a 5, 000-mile border with the USSR.

Would US military sales to China really be in the best long-range interest of either side?

US weapons sales to Peking would, of course, be helpful in improving relations between the two nations in general. Such sales would also provide a strengthened link with China in the US-China-Soviet power triangle. Arms sales to China would also reflect the increasing priority the US places on Asia these days, now that the US is undertaking more and more commercial trade with Asian nations.

Still, the US-China relationship has so far managed to move forward without any significant military linkage. The US, for its part, has relations throughout Asia. Selling arms to China cannot help but complicate its overall Asian diplomacy. That holds equally true for China, which maintains its uneasy ''peace'' with the Soviets. So in that sense, mutual arms agreements contain some inherent problems for both sides.

And there is a final point: The US now leads the world in arms sales to the third world - with deliveries of weapons worth over $26 billion last year alone. If the US is to play the role of a major world arms distributor, it cannot be expected to discriminate against the globe's most populous nation. But what the third world most needs is development assistance and economic progress - not wasteful expenditures on weapons of destruction.

The difficulty of a military-political relationship with China can also be seen in the issue of nuclear cooperation: A nuclear-cooperation agreement between the US and China appears likely to be blocked in the US Congress over concerns about proliferation.

In short then, both the US and China would seem on best grounds in proceeding slowly - very slowly - in mutual weapons transactions.

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