BENEATH the pomp and circumstance of President Bush's weekend visit to China lies a major, unresolved foreign policy issue. Should the United States continue to expand its exports of advanced military technology to Beijing? Despite persistent opposition from conservative senators like Jesse Helms and Barry Goldwater, the US-China arms trade flourished during the eight years of the Reagan administration. The groundwork for a substantial arms supply relationship was laid in the first Reagan term, when China was cleared to receive exports of items on the US munitions list and authorized to buy advanced US weaponry under the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales program. By 1985, the value of US arms exports to China had reached $43 million, mostly on the strength of Beijing's purchase of two dozen civilian versions of the Sikorsky Black Hawk military transport helicopter.
These relatively modest early sales paved the way for two blockbuster deals negotiated in fiscal year 1986. The first involved $98 million in technical data, blueprints, and equipment for use in modernizing China's factories for the production of advanced 155-mm artillery shells. This was followed in April of 1986 by the sale of $550 million in advanced electronic systems, including airborne radar, inertial navigation systems, and on-board computers, for integration into China's force of F-8 fighter planes. This upgrade program, directed for China by the Grumman Corporation, will give the F-8 a capability roughly comparable to that of a US Air Force F-16 fighter.
The F-8 deal alone brought China into the upper echelon of US weapons clients, ranking it second to Saudi Arabia among recipients of weapons under the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales program in fiscal year 1987.
Waiting in the wings is the most significant US-China technology transfer arrangement of all, the 30-year nuclear cooperation agreement signed by the two nations in 1985. Actual exports of US nuclear technology to China under the agreement have been stymied by the terms of a 1985 joint resolution of Congress sponsored by Sen. John Glenn. The resolution bars any US nuclear exports to China until such time as the president certifies that there are adequate safeguards to ensure that the technology is used for peaceful purposes, and that China is not helping any non-nuclear-weapons state to develop nuclear weapons. Significantly, President Reagan never made this certification, and nuclear exports to China are in limbo. It remains to be seen whether President Bush will attempt to activate the nuclear trade with China by vouching for Beijing's nuclear non-proliferation credentials.
Advocates of the expanding US military and high-technology trade with China make two basic arguments. First, they assert that the level of US sales has been ``prudent,'' involving technology that poses no conceivable threat to the US or its allies. Second, they argue that any risks involved in this technology transfer are more than offset by the value of striking fear and uncertainty in the minds of Soviet military planners by helping China modernize its armed forces.
By focusing exclusively on relationships among the major powers, advocates of the China arms trade are missing the real, long-term danger. China's purchases from the US have been strategically selected to improve Beijing's arms production capabilities. China, in turn, has been moving aggressively to increase its sales of weapons, ranking fifth in sales of weapons to the third world during the 1980s. From supplying billions in ammunition and missiles to both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, to offering assistance to Pakistan and Brazil in their nuclear programs, China has shown a capacity to sell almost anything to any nation willing to pay cash. The reported sale of a Chinese medium-range ballistic missile to Saudi Arabia last year is a continuing point of controversy.
If President Bush is looking for ways to distinguish himself from his predecessor during his first hundred days, putting the brakes on the arms trade with China would be one good place to start.