Teng Hsaio-ping's visit and the "normalization" of our relations with the People's Republic of China bid fair to create the same lack of understanding between the administration and the American people as did the Nixon visit to the Soviet Union and the policy of "detente."

People understood in 1972 that what had been set in motion was 1) a process for progress in reducing the danger of nuclear war and 2) a political settlement in Europe that laid a basis for moving away from confrontation in that area of prime interest to our security. But they did not understand that, for the Third World, all that had been done was to reduce the prospect of nuclear confrontation there. Expectations that contention in the developing areas would sharply diminish received a rude shock in Angola. President Ford then disavowed "detente" and refused to grasp the nettle of SALT II.

Is it too much to ask that the administration now try to make it clear what the new relationship with Peking does and does not do?

The problem is that the administration does little to make its policy intelligible. The president's adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, goes to Peking, chortles with his hosts over the threat of the "polar bear to the North" and speaks of the "common interests" of Washington and Peking. Peking wants territory in Soviet Siberia and plans to build up its nuclear power to press its claims. To Moscow, this Peking position is a matter affecting Soviet national security. Is this an interest of Peking that the administration shares?

President Carter explains that we wish equally good relations with Communist China and the Soviet Union, that our relations with one are not directed against the other. But then Teng's visit is arranged so that he has a most unusual private dinner with Brzezinski on his first night and, after announcing that there world be no communique following the visit, Teng and Carter issue a joint statement affirming their opposition to any nation seeking world "hegemony." This seems to add nothing new; we are opposed to any one nation or group of nations dominating the world. But Moscow knows and Washington knows that "hegemony" is Peking's buzz-word for its own undiluted confrontation with the Soviets.

It should be no surprise that Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev immediately asked for an explanation. One hopes that his demand will not make it more difficult for the administration to clarify its position.

A starting point may be to look at the fundamental political underpinning of our Soviet policy and see how it is affected by our Chinese connection. The powerful, though limited, shared interest that brought the Soviet Union and the United States together was the danger of a nuclear war. But it required a deeper political agreement on at least two essentials to give negotiations any chance of success. First was the understanding that each accepted for the foreseeable future the authority of the governing structure in the other and would not, as a matter of policy and active conduct, seek to change it. Second was the understanding that each accepted the existence of a rough balance of power between the two countries.

The Carter administration demonstrated its poor grasp of the first element in its early handling of the human-rights issue. It failed to see that in Soviet eyes the president's extension of support, personally And publicly , to specific imprisoned dissidents went beyond general advocacy of civil rights. The Soviet leadership construed it as a possible U.S. commitment actively to encourage Soviet citizens to oppose the regime. The attendant uncertainty left U.S.-Soviet relations dead in the water for most of 1977 while the administration backed and filled to clarify its position on that first underlying understanding.

The administration's handling of "normalization" with China has called into question its grasp of the second understanding -- the balance of power between the two countries. This understanding is tentative and only partially defined in any case. Its acceptance, indeed its acceptability, is called into question by powerful groups on both sides. Its definition is the substance of the upcoming debate on SALT II. But without mutual allegiance to the basic proposition that the military power of the two countries should be essentially equal, the whole framework of the negotiations begins to unravel. So do efforts to stabilize the military balance in regional theaters: in Europe, where Brezhnev has now accepted the crucial Western position that there be common ceilings (a regional balance) for the NATO and Warsaw Pact forces; in the Indian Ocean, where the fate of the stalled negotiations will bear significantly on stability in Africa; in the Middle East, where U.S.-Soviet agreement on limiting arms shipments to the area would add measurably to the stability of the hoped-for political settlements.

The goal of establishing ever wider areas of stabilized military relations will not come easily. Our determination to sustain the military balances will remain an essential precondition to negotiating arrangements to stabilize them.

But it is not just Brezhnev, but also the American people who must know how we relate "normalization" with China to the basic understanding of a balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union.In the SALT II negotiations, the Soviet side initially insisted on an allowance of nuclear weapons greater than ours on grounds that they were needed to counter a hostile, neighboring China. It was a major concession, requiring Brezhnev and Politburo intercession, when this demand was dropped -- one, incidentally, given surprisingly little weight in our debates. The Soviet leadership apparently decided that the question of Chinese nuclear power and its relevance to the U.S.-Soviet balance could be addressed at a later date. The state of the Chinese economy put limits on the speed of a nuclear build-up; Maoist doctrine did not stress high-technology weaponry; and the prospect of some Soviet-Chinese reconciliation in the post-Mao period was not discounted.

Now that situation has markedly changed. Teng's China is bent on invigorating the economy with its own and Western technology and on building modern military forces, including modern nuclear armaments. The enshrinement of the Soviet Union as "Enemy No. 1" becomes ever more unequivocal.

In this context, we cannot dodge the question of how we view the emerging Chinese power. Even if it is more prospective than in hand, it counts. Do we see Chinese power, including nuclear power, added to our own, tilting the balance in our favor, invalidating our understanding on balanced U.S. and Soviet power? The temptation to convey intimations to that effect will be strong when SALT II is debated. But if we do so, will SALT II not be the last SALT, taking with it our hope of reducing the nuclear-arms level and the prospect of force reductions in Europe? And what of Soviet actions toward China itself? Would we expect the Soviet Union passively to await the day when Chinese claims on current Soviet territory could be pressed with superior U.S.-Chinese nuclear power behind them? Or do we accept the increased risk of a Soviet preemptive attack on China, where our choice could be involvement in nuclear war or passive acceptance of Soviet destruction of China's counter-weight -- and a demonstration of our impotence and lack of wisdom?

Or, rather, are we conscious of the importance of the balance of U.S.-Soviet power? Do we envisage drawing China into the arms-limitation process and the process of negotiated accommodations? And trading on equivalent terms with China and the Soviet Union?

Teng's visit and "normalization" has given a new dimension to U.S. foreign policy. But without clarification of how the Chinese connection affects the basic understanding on the military balance between the United States and the Soviet Union, we cannot know where we are going. And, without clarification, the administration will encounter fundamental misunderstandings in this country that can frustrate and complicate the conduct of any effective foreign policy.