AMID the controversy over whether the United States should aid ``contra'' rebels in Nicaragua, one thing is clear: Both the US and China have adopted similar approaches to deal with a common challenge. That is to ``teach a lesson'' to small defiant neighbors who have allied themselves with the Soviet Union in return for aid against larger powers to the north. For China the problem is Vietnam, not Nicaragua. Like Washington, Peking is reluctant to invade directly. Instead, both Washington and Peking have chosen remarkably similar ways to pressure southern neighbors that were once friendly ``tributaries.''
President Reagan's strategy of supporting contra guerrillas against Nicaragua's Sandinista government hardly seems novel when compared with China's approach in Kampuchea.
As the Reagan administration would do with the contras, so Peking has long done with the Khmer Rouge guerrillas who battle the Vietnam Army in Kampuchea. The guerrillas depend on China for weapons and other supplies. China's aid to the Khmer Rouge builds on the good relations Peking had with the Khmer Rouge government when it held power in Kampuchea from 1975 until the Vietnamese invasion in February 1979.
But support for the Khmer Rouge has been embarrassing for China. The years of Khmer Rouge rule brought estimates of from 1 million to 3 million deaths from executions and forced migrations. It is hardly surprising that there is some skepticism over China's protestations of concern for the welfare of Kampuchea's people.
Peking's embarrassment finds even louder echoes in Washington. Congressional and public debate has raised the issue of whether aid for the contras would go to former soldiers of Nicaragua's National Guard. The National Guard was a military arm of Nicaragua's pro-American Somoza dynasty, which ruled Nicaragua from 1933 to the Sandinista revolution of May 1979. As with China and the Khmer Rouge, allegations of contra atrocities have sometimes made the US government appear more interested in countering the Soviet Union than in the welfare of the Nicaraguan people.
Here the similarity ends. The embarrassment is much greater for the Reagan administration than for China. This is true even though the Khmer Rouge record is far more brutal than anything with which the Somoza government has ever been accused.
Unlike the US, China has no open system of public discussion and congressional debate, so its government has no reason to fear an internal debate on the morality of its foreign policy. And outside China, persons of liberal or left-wing bent seem far more inclined to criticize the United States as led by a conservative President Reagan than to target an internally reformist communist country like China.
Conservative anti-communists in Asia and elsewhere may dislike the Khmer Rouge. But they are often pleased to see them tie down the Vietnamese Army in Kampuchea -- thus costing the Soviet Union even more wealth and making Vietnam too weak to cause problems in Southeast Asia.
The American and Chinese policies do seem to have one major advantage. They are substitutes for costly direct invasions.
Administration leaders cannot ignore the possible harmful affects of a larger Central American war on the American economy. The legacy of the Vietnam war and the possibility the American public might not support a long-term invasion of Nicaragua are reasons for caution.
For now, China has rejected the option of repeating its brief February 1979 invasion of Vietnam. China did warn it might ``teach another lesson'' to Vietnam after Hanoi's aggressive dry season offensive earlier this year had smashed anti-Vietnam guerrilla bases in western Kampuchea. But China's ``second lesson'' never came.
China's reluctance to again invade Vietnam reflects an awareness of the growing costs of going to war. China's 1979 invasion aimed to punish Vietnam for occupying Kampuchea. It also revealed weaknesses in the Chinese military and strained Deng Xiaoping's modernization programs. Since then, Vietnam has strengthened its border defenses to make a second Chinese invasion even more costly.
So China relies on support of the Khmer Rouge and hopes Vietnam's military will be strained and weakened by fighting guerrillas in Kampuchea and guarding the northern border with Vietnam. China hopes this policy will provide an umbrella under which friendly countries like Thailand can protect themselves from subversion or direct attack.
In its Nicaraguan policy of supporting the contras the Reagan administration hopes to accomplish many of the same goals Peking has set for its aid to the Khmer Rouge. A potent US-backed guerrilla force could, it is reasoned, provide an umbrella for El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Honduras by leaving Nicaragua too weak to aid insurgents outside its borders.
Frederic A. Moritz is an associate professor of journalism at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park.