Let's Be Consistent

THE United States is right to get tough with China over its prospective sale of medium-range ballistic missiles to Syria and Pakistan. A new missile supplier is the last thing the Middle East, or the volatile Indian subcontinent, needs. Syrian possession of Chinese M11s, which could reach into Israel, would add another impediment to the difficult task of Mideast peacemaking and arms limitation. Syria already has Scud missiles supplied by North Korea. Pakistan's possession of Chinese missiles could put a mushroom-shaped cloud over its tense northern border with India.

Secretary of State James Baker warned of these threats to peace in testimony before Congress last week. He also warned the Chinese that failure to change their missile-sales plans "could have bilateral consequences." The latter refers to the possibility the Bush administration might have to alter its conciliatory stance toward Beijing on trade matters.

But will the Chinese leaders listen? Their comeback to pressures from Washington on this matter has been, "You do it, why shouldn't we?" They have a point. The US has tried to rally international support behind its proposal to ban missile sales to the Middle East, but has shown little inclination to stem the overall flow of weaponry to tense parts of the world. American arms manufacturers are continuing to fill Mideast orders. China's weapons builders - not to mention its ruling elite - want a share of t

he pie.

China is also likely to argue that it shouldn't have to abide by rules on missile sales set down in an international agreement, the Missile Technology Control Regime, that it had no part in forming. The Chinese have indicated, however, that they might accede to a broader agreement shaped through the United Nations.

The US should maintain a tough position toward China on the sale of missiles. But its stance would be more credible if Washington were doing more to curb the shipping of its own US-made arms to world hot spots.

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