Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has demonstrated an appropriate sense of tact and political sensitivity during his visit to China, which will end Saturday. The same cannot be said of officials in Washington.
Vessey is the highest-ranking American officer to visit China since 1949. The occasion symbolizes the cautiously growing military cooperation between the two countries, which fought each other in Korea less than 35 years ago.
China has the world's largest land army, the second-largest navy and the third-largest air force. But the Chinese armed forces are equipped mostly with old, outmoded weapons of Soviet design dating from the 1950s and 1960s.
The Peking government, worried by the presence of about 700,000 Soviet troops on its northern borders and the growing Soviet naval and air presence in the Western Pacific, is anxious to modernize its armed forces to the modest extent possible with its limited resources. Toward that end, it is anxious to buy certain military weapons and equipment from the United States.
The Reagan Administration, which sees China as a vital barrier to Soviet expansion in Asia, has expressed a willingness to sell strictly defensive weapons and certain dual-use technologies. High-ranking military delegations from the two countries have been discussing the subject.
However, neither Peking nor Washington wants to needlessly antagonize the Soviet Union by overdramatizing the limited military cooperation that is in prospect. The U.S. Embassy in Peking described Vessey's visit as a "soldier-to-soldier" affair not involving arms sales. Vessey himself stressed that "our military ties are designed to promote peace and understanding, and threaten no third party."
Somebody back in Washington, however, was operating on a different wavelength. An unidentified Administration official took this particular time to disclose that the United States has reached a preliminary understanding with China for the sale of modern anti-submarine-warfare gear, and that sales of anti-tank and air-defense weapons have been discussed.
The equipment involved appears to be defensive in nature. The prospective sales are unobjectionable on substantive grounds. But appearances, while not everything, are important. The disclosure in Washington, coinciding as it did with Vessey's visit to Peking, was badly timed.
This one incident is probably not all that important. But it betrays an insensitivity in high places that could prove troublesome. Neither the United States nor China stands to benefit from encouraging the impression of a military alliance in the making. That could add unnecessarily to both countries' problems with the Soviet Union, as well as cause unjustified concern in friendly Asian countries that historically have had more reason to fear China than Russia.