NEWS this week that the United States remains the No. 1 seller of arms to the third world is not surprising, since the US makes some of the best weapons available and takes little initiative in curbing their sales. Since 1985 the US has been the No. 1 distributor of military aircraft, tanks, and other conventional weapons. It sells to wealthy Middle Eastern nations for whom weapons build-ups are certainly destabilizing - as well as to lower-rung third-world countries whose leaders choose to buy that shin y $1 million attack helicopter rather than feed their hungry people.
Still, this year's report does indicate what, in relative terms, might be seen as good news. Overall weapons sales are down 20 percent from $28.6 billion to $23.9 billion. The US ratio of third-world sales jumped from 49 to 57 percent, but this number is a bit deceptive. It reflects both a dramatic drop in Russian sales and the unusual sale of 150 F-16 fighters to Taiwan. Overall US sales dropped slightly, and 90 percent were to three countries - Taiwan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.
Former Soviet client states can no longer afford weapons, and the former Soviet military machine is producing outdated equipment. But it is folly to relax efforts to contain weapons sales. New regional conflicts are rising; and in time, and without international cooperative efforts, there will be a greater demand for cheap modern weapons - including transportable and deadly high-tech missiles. Already Russian industrialists are contemplating whether or not to cooperate with China in mass production. Mosc ow has security concerns. But it also wants hard cash. China needs designs. Beijing in fact is buying an aircraft carrier from Moscow. Even the Czech government, which foreswore arms building, now plans to renege.
The five permanent Security Council members are also the five biggest weapons sellers. Talks among them to reduce third-world sales halted when the US broke a general agreement (and a specific promise) not to sell the fighters to Taiwan. When the Chinese foreign minister and Secretary of State Warren Christopher meet on Sunday in Singapore, they ought to negotiate resumption of these talks.