The United States has been quietly encouraging greater Chinese support for international arms control accords. It has also explained to the Chinese why it supports the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which China has so far refused to sign.
These were the apparent reasons for the visit to China by a US arms control delegation headed by Kenneth L. Adelman, director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
However, Chinese officials said over the weekend that Mr. Adelman would not discuss with them the controversial nuclear cooperation agreement President Reagan initialed while in China in April. Mr. Adelman made it clear from the beginning, Chinese officials said, that one volatile issue - obtaining additional assurances that China would not transfer nuclear materials supplied by the US to other nations - was not on his agenda.
As director of the arms control agency, however, Mr. Adelman must assess the nuclear nonproliferation aspects of the Reagan administration's proposed agreement to sell nuclear power equipment to China before the agreement is finally approved.
The nine-person delegation met with Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian, representatives of the Chinese Defense Ministry, and civilian experts on security affairs in a total of nine hours of meetings last Thursday and Friday. This was the first visit to China by a director of the US arms control agency since 1980.
The discussions with the Chinese were conducted in an atmosphere which was friendly and nonpolemical, a spokesman for the American delegation said. The purpose of the meetings, he said, was to discuss a broad range of arms control issues and to present the US position on arms talks with the Soviet Union, which are now suspended. The US position in the proposed talks with the Soviet Union on the demilitarization of outer space, which have been proposed to take place in Vienna in September, was also discussed. In the past, China has expressed strong interest in an agreement on banning weapons in space.
The spokesman for the delegation said that the Reagan administration was heartened by the steps Chinahad taken recently in joining the International Atomic Energy Agency and in signing the Outer Space Treaty. It was important, he said, as China emerges as a major military power in the next decade or more, that the US share its views on arms control.
In his talks with the US officials, Foreign Minister Wu expressed particular concern over the break-off in negotiations on medium-range nucler weapons, said the New China News Agency. ''We hope the two nuclear powers, the Soviet Union, and the United States, will stop their arms race and sit down for earnest talks so as to reach agreement on a drastic reduction of nuclear weapons,'' he said.
According to the New China News Agency, Mr. Wu reaffirmed the Chinese proposal that the Soviet Union and the US should first stop testing, improving, and manufacturing nuclear weapons and then reach agreement on a drastic reduction of nuclear weapons. As a country with nuclear weapons, China would like to participate in the process of disarmament, the foreign minister said.
The Chinese have a stake in the suspended medium-range missile talks, since 135 Soviet SS-20s or about one-third of the Soviet force are deployed in the Soviet Far East, mainly aimed at China. The US position has been to require a global reduction in Soviet medium-range missiles, rejecting any transfer of Soviet missiles from Europe to the Far East.
On the first day of the Adelman meetings last week, the official Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, charged both the US and the Soviet Union with insincerity in the disarmament talks. It said that the recent exchange of proposals and counterproposals on talks to control weapons in space reflected ulterior motives on both sides.
''From this verbal fight between the US and the Soviet Union, Western opinion can see clearly that both sides are not sincere in hoping to conduct earnest talks on disarmament and that they are only a playing propaganda farce,'' the People's Daily said.
Some Western diplomats here say that in recent months, China has worked out a more coherent policy on arms control.
Several years ago, China privately supported the deployment of US intermediate-range weapons in Western Europe to oppose Soviet SS-20s. They saw the deployment as the best guarantee of US involvement in the defense of Europe, a Western European diplomat says, but they wanted to be identified as a pacifist country. Now their public and private viewpoints are more consistent, he said.
On nuclear nonproliferation, China has denied that it has assisted any foreign country in the production of nuclear weapons. It has also consistently refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on the grounds that it effectively would reserve the privilege of possessing nuclear weapons for a small group of advanced industrialized countries.
The Adelman delegation will be in China until July 10, when they will travel to Bangkok.