WASHINGTON — IN the Bush administration, China's apparent decision to sell ballistic missiles to Syria and Pakistan is seen as a double-barreled setback. It strikes at the heart of President Bush's arms control plan for the Middle East. The proposal calls for a ban on the acquisition, production, and testing of surface-to-surface missiles in the region with an eye to their eventual elimination.
The introduction of Chinese missiles also threatens to upset the fragile military balance in two of the most volatile regions of the world: the Middle East and South Asia.
``Acquiring missiles that have increased range and accuracy is not going to do much for the prospect of arms control,'' says Alan Platt, an international security specialist and former official of the US Department of State's arms control agency. ``The Chinese are the fly in the ointment.''
At a United States Senate hearing last week Secretary of State James Baker III warned that delivery by China of M-9 and M-11 missiles would have ``profound consequences'' for US relations with China, but none were spelled out.
The M-11 missile has a range of 180 miles and is capable of carrying nuclear warheads. It and the longer-range M-9 (260-miles) are believed to be more accurate than the Soviet-built Scud missiles used by Iraq during the Gulf war.
For Syria, the Chinese missiles could be the key to gaining strategic parity with Israel.
Before the Gulf war, Syria's missile arsenal consisted of three categories of Soviet-made short-range missiles.
Since the war, Syria has reportedly invested up to half the $2 billion windfall it earned from aligning itself with the US-led Gulf coalition to upgrade and double the size of its missile arsenal.
In addition to the planned purchase from China, Syria has taken delivery of enhanced Scud C missiles from North Korea. The Scud C range is up to 400 miles, giving Syria the ability for the first time to strike targets deep inside Israel with conventional or chemical warheads.
``This means that missile attacks on the home front will be more serious than what was previously known,'' writes analyst Alex Fishman in Israel's Hadashot newspaper.
The effect of missile sales to Pakistan would be less serious immediately, since Chinese missiles could not reach the Indian heartland. But with Pakistan developing a nuclear weapons capability the dangers could grow exponentially.
``It may not be too serious in terms of the strategic balance,'' says nuclear proliferation specialist Leonard Spector of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``What's serious is when you contemplate nuclear warheads, and that may not be so far in the future.''
China sales could also have the indirect effect of undermining a Pakistani proposal to have the US, Soviet Union, and China mediate talks between Indian and Pakistan on curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons in South Asia.
``India is worried about China already,'' says Mr. Spector. ``If China sells missiles to Pakistan it will make it all the more reluctant to enter such a forum. It undermines China's role as honest broker.''