Washington — President Reagan and his foreign policy team still have months to decide what they want to do in the field of nuclear arms and SALT talks with the Soviets. But the new administration is expected to have to come to quicker decisions in another weapons field: conventional arms sales to so-called third world nations.
The Carter adminisration came to power deploring America's role as the "arms merchant of the world." It ended up reluctantly selling arms to gain diplomatic leverage, much as preceding administration had. The Reagan team is expected to try to use arms sales in the traditional manner -- as weapons of diplomacy - vigorously and without apology.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. has indicated that the United sTates ought to be forthcoming when it comes to the security needs of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Both have been major recipients of American weaponry in the past. Recommendations are being made to Mr. Haig that the US put together a much larger arms package for Pakistan than the Carter administration had offered. Central America is another region where decisions on arms deliveries are likely in the early days of the new administration.
Taiwan is likely to press the new administration to sell it advanced fighter planes. Carter admnistration officials rejected such requests from Taiwan because they feared such sales would damage US relations with Peking. President Reagan has indicated that the wants to reestablish closer ties with Taiwan.
Reagan also made clear during the presidential campaign that he thinks Carter's human rights policy resulted in an unnecessary strain in relations with key Latin American nations such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. According to a US Defense Department official, moves to repair relations with those countries will likely include a renewal of arms sales. Defense experts say that Africa is another region where American arms sales might increase.
Much about the new administration's approach concerning arms sales could be revealed at Senate hearings next month on the security assistance budget.
But there are real limits on how far the Reagan admnistration can go. For instance, when it comes to arms sales to Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, supporters of Israel are in a position to offer major opposition to such sales in both the Congress and executive branch. According to the biweekly report, Middle East Policy Survey, Secretary of State Haig's senior aides share a remarkably supportive attitude toward Israel.
"Many have well known reputations for placing a premium on Israel's strategic value to the US," the survey says.
The first real test of the new admnistration's arms sales policy may come with its response to Saudi Arabia's request for supplemental equipment for its F-15 fighter aircraft.
Except perhaps when it comes to Arab countries, Congress is not expected to offer any major resistance to increased arms sales.
"I think the Congress will say 'go to it,'" declared Leslie H. Gelb, former director of the bureau of politico-military affairs at the US State Department. "Arms sales are good for business. They're good for the balance of payments."
But the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon, is likely to be skeptical of some proposed arms sales.
According to an aide, Senator Hatfield believes that in many instances arms sales, or grants, have been a poor way of securing stable governments that are helpful to the US. The Senator thinks that massive American arms sales to the late Shah of Iran merely contributed to his overthrow by feeding a lack of realism on the part of the Shah and helping to separate him from his people. This, Hatfield thinks, has largely been overlooked in debate over the downfall of the Shah.
If the Reagan administration wants to markedly increase arms deliveries to third world nations, it may have to consider reviving the almost nonexistent military grant aid program. Many nations, such as those of Central America, lack the funds to make major purchases. Having fought border skirmishes with Vietnam over the past year or so, Thailand is believed likely to push for grant assistance. But this kind of aid would run counter to the Reagan's budget cutting plans.
Pakistan would be hard put to pay for new weapons. But evidence that the Pakistanis are building a nuclear bomb would make it difficult for Congress to approve grant aid. But Saudi Arabia could be expected to help Pakistan finance new weapons purchases.
James F. Hollingsworth, a retired US Army general, recently visited Pakistan at the request of Pakistani President Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. He concluded that Pakistan requires sharp improvement inits border surveillance equipment and antitank and antiaircraft defenses. Mr. Hollingsworth, who was deputy commander of the Army division for which Haig fought when he was a lieutenant colonel in Vietnam, stressed that he went to Pakistan as a private citizen. But he said he would be ma king his findings known to Haig.