United States patience in building relations with China is paying off today, as hundreds of American sailors are scheduled to walk ashore at this port on the Yellow Sea. This is the first shore leave in China for the US Navy since the USS Dixie weighed anchor and sailed from Qingdao in May 1949, only a few weeks before communist forces took control of the city.
The visit of the USS Reeves, the USS Oldendorf, and the USS Rentz Nov. 5 to 11 is a result of US-Chinese discussions that were drawn out for several years. The Reagan adminisration's efforts to show the flag on the Chinese mainland ran into rough seas at least once, when a planned May 1985 visit was called off because of a dispute over US nuclear weapons policy.
Now both sides are taking advantage of the opportunity to make a largely symbolic statement. The port visit underscores the friendly but nonaligned relations between China and the US, while it enhances the image of the US Navy's presence in the western Pacific. It is apparently a one-time event similar to visits made to other countries with whom the US has friendly relations and affirms that exchanges between the two countries are becoming more normal. The good will such visits typically bring should add another milestone to a relationship that now includes some military as well as economic cooperation.
The ship visit has strong backing from influential voices in the Pentagon, including US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, who made the official announcement of the event during a trip to China last month. The Reagan administration's support for the port call and its readiness to sell defensive military technology to China indicate renewed US interest in China's strategic importance as a counter to the Soviet Union's presence in Asia.
China, too, may have geopolitical reasons for welcoming the Americans to Qingdao, though many observers have interpreted the delay in scheduling the visit as evidence that Peking feels ambiguous about it. The Soviet Navy's Pacific fleet, based in Vladivostok, has grown rapidly in the past decade and recently gained visiting privileges only a few hundred miles north of here at the North Korean port of Nampo.
A senior Chinese naval officer who is in Qingdao to greet the Americans said that if the Soviet Navy paid a port call to Nampo, it would be a ``very serious'' development. The Chinese Navy is a coastal defense force. It is no match for the Soviet fleet, to which it is inferior in both cruising range and in offensive and defensive capabilities.
The Chinese are thus very curious about American warships, which they consider to be the most technically advanced in the world. Chinese visitors to the American ships this week will include Chinese Navy personnel and engineering specialists from throughout the country. They want a first-hand look at some of the equipment the Chinese Navy would like to buy or duplicate to modernize its fleet.
The Chinese have been negotiating with the US for almost two years on the purchase of MK-46 torpedo technology and sonar equipment that would give their coastal defense forces an antisubmarine warfare capability that they currently lack.
The negotiations have been tedious, and Chinese officials have asked the Americans to be patient while they make some difficult decisions on how to spend their scarce funds.
Sources in Peking say that agreement may soon be reached on the torpedo sale if the two sides can close the price gap.
Meanwhile, local residents say the people of Qingdao have been thoroughly ``mobilized'' to give the 900 US sailors a hearty welcome in this resort town. A city official told the press the visit was of ``great significance in developing Sino-American friendship.'' Shops are being kept open two hours later to accommodate the visitors, who local businessmen hope will enliven the economy.
But there may be a reluctance on the part of some officials to appear too enthusiastic. The hotel housing the press corps and some of the American officials took down a large banner saying ``Hui Quan Dynasty Hotel welcomes the US Navy.''
Asked why the banner was taken down a day before the ships arrived, a member of the hotel staff said the Qingdao city government had objected to it.
Later, the staff member gave a different explanation, saying the wind had blown it down. The sea breezes are strong in Qingdao in November, but so perhaps are the attitudes of some officials who don't want to see China's ``open door'' policy carried too far.