The visit by a top-level American military delegation here is expected to increase United States involvement in China's modernization of its proud but seriously out-of-date fighting forces. Led by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John W. Vessey, Jr., the visit is the first to China by a chief of the US armed forces since 1949.
It follows a series of high-level exchanges begun in September, 1983, with the visit of Secretary of Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger. Chinese Defense Minister Zhang Aiping paid a return visit to the United States last June, and US Secretary of the Navy John Lehman came to China last August. Two other US military delegations have visited here in the past three months which included Pentagon specialists in training and logistics.
US officials say that the main purpose of the Vessey visit is to get to know Chinese military leaders and their defense establishment. It is a ``soldier-to-soldier'' visit, they say.
Specific items on his agenda include arrangements for the first US Navy port call to China in 36 years by possibly as many as three destroyers. The port call is expected to take place at Shanghai in April. Discussions on weaponry and other military technology is almost certain to take place as well, say Western officials.
During the past year, at least four Chinese delegations have visited the US to look at military equipment, but actual sales of US weapons have been few. China did take delivery in November of the first of 24 Sikorsky helicopters from the United Technologies Corp. The aircraft are to be used by military units in Tibet, according to press reports.
During a week-long tour, the US officers will see several of China's major military installations: Shenyang, command post for the critical northeastern military region where the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) faces Soviet troops across the border; Hangzhou, a base for the Chinese Air Force; Shanghai, headquarters for the Navy's East China Sea fleet; and Canton, headquarters for one of China's southern military regions.
Over the weekend, General Vessey held two meetings with his counterpart, Chief of the PLA General Staff, Yang Dezhi. And he met with Chinese Defense Minister Zhang Aiping. He is scheduled to meet with Premier Zhao Ziyang today.
In a banquet speech Saturday night, General Yang noted the benefits of good relations between the armed forces of China and the US, but also warned about the unresolved problem of Taiwan.
``It has been proved that normal and good relations between China and the United States and between our two armed forces is in line with our two peoples' interests and will contribute to the peace and stability of Asia and the world,'' Yang said.
``Naturally, as it is known to all, there are still difficulties and obstacles on the way of developing the relations between our two countries. This should be treated seriously,'' the Chinese chief of staff said.
Vessey paid tribute to Yang's ``distinguished military career,'' which also included a stint in Korea in the early 1950s fighting US troops. Vessey himself commanded United Nations forces in South Korea in the late 1970s.
Officials in the Vessey party reportedly were upset at articles in US newspapers over the weekend stating that a Chinese delegation had agreed in Washington last month to buy equipment to upgrade Chinese destroyers. US officials would neither confirm nor deny the report, though the Chinese Navy is known to have been considering the purchase of naval equipment.
This week Vessey is seeing a military force slowly leaving behind the traditions of a highly politicized peasant Army with an aging leadership and is aiming to promote a younger, more professional officer corps. But it is also a military with severe financial constraints that has been given short shrift in the modernization program of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
In a speech made last October but released last week, Mr. Deng mentioned that perhaps one percent of the nation's gross national product in the year 2000 would be used for the military. With the goal of a $1 trillion GNP by that date, that would leave a military budget of $10 billion, or only $2 to $3 billion more than China is spending today, according to Western estimates.
Western defense attach'es say that China most needs to upgrade its anti-aircraft and anti-tank defenses against an estimated one million Soviet troops deployed among China's northern border with the Soviet Union and Mongolia. But it is also important for the PLA to revamp its training and education programs, they say.
Since the needs for more advanced equipment and better trained personnel greatly exceed the resources of the Chinese government, the PLA has been forced to rely on its own resources in its efforts to modernize. Self-reliance has long been a virtue in the PLA, dating from the days of the protracted Chinese revolution. Now the military is turning out large amounts of consumer goods from the defense industries it controls, and it is also beginning to earn its own foreign exchange from arms sales to the third world.
The PLA also has been cutting back on personnel, mainly by turning over to civilian management some construction and railway battalions and by separating the police forces from the main combat units. These retrenchments have reduced the size of the PLA by hundreds of thousands, say Western officials, while not affecting the Army's combat readiness. The actual size of the PLA is now reckoned to be about 3.5 million, give or take several hundred thousand, but could be as low as three million, says one Western defense attach'e.
As China ``window shops'' worldwide for the latest technology, some diplomatic observers say it is holding out for US military hardware even as it piques the interest of Western European defense industries. They also say that after several false starts on major weapons purchases in the past several years, the military seems ready to begin to lay out cash for major equipment.