President Bush on Tuesday authorized the first shipments of U.S. military equipment to China since the 1989 massacre in Beijing, clearing the way for the delivery of radars, torpedoes and aviation electronics kits that have been kept in storage in this country for more than three years.
All of the equipment had been sold to China and was awaiting delivery before the Tian An Men Square demonstrations. But it had been held back after Bush imposed sanctions on the transfer of military equipment to Beijing.
Tuesday's action was the latest in a series of post-Election Day moves by the Bush Administration aimed at easing the impact of the 1989 sanctions.
During his presidential campaign and in remarks since the election, President-elect Bill Clinton has served notice that he will take a tougher stance than Bush on China policy by using American trade benefits as leverage to persuade Beijing to make progress on human rights.
After the election, Bush announced that he was sending Secretary of Commerce Barbara Hackman Franklin to Beijing to renew the Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, an annual Cabinet-level exchange program between the United States and China that was suspended after China's Tian An Men crackdown.
The Administration is also considering approval of the sale of a supercomputer to China. But that deal has been held up by Defense Department objections that it could be helpful to China's weapons programs.
"It's the end of this Administration and time to clean up some of this stuff," one senior official said recently in explaining the flurry of moves on China policy.
Bush's announcement concerning the military equipment was released late Tuesday on a day when Clinton was announcing his foreign policy team and in a way that appeared designed to attract as little news coverage as possible.
In a written statement, the Administration said that "we have no plans for further arms sales to China." But the Administration said the warehoused equipment is old and is now of limited use to China. "Continuing to hold these items after a 3 1/2-year suspension is not in the U.S. national interest," the Administration said. "We have made our point."
The equipment includes two artillery-detection radars, four anti-submarine torpedoes that the Administration terms obsolete, some equipment for a munitions production line and four kits to improve the electronics on China's F-8 fighter planes.
While further arms sales are unlikely, the action could pave the way for what many Defense Department officials hope will be a renewal next year of contacts between high-level military officials of the United States and China.
Clinton indicated Tuesday that he has not retreated from his campaign position in favor of linking trade benefits to improvements in China's human rights policies. "This country has a $15-billion trade deficit with China," Clinton told a news conference in Little Rock, Ark., on Tuesday. "We bought $15 billion more of their products than they have bought of ours now on an annual basis.
"That should give us some ground for serious discussion about . . . where we're going to go, the kind of freedom the people of Hong Kong are going to have, what kind of freedom the people of China are going to have and how we can move forward together," Clinton said.