China's military may be listed in last place in the country's drive to catch up with the West, but that doesn't mean it's out of the running. At least that is the hope of some 150 defense contractors from the United States and Western Europe who arrived here this week for a trade show.
The exhibition, with the bulky title of ``International Defense Industries Modernization Expo/China '86,'' opens today. On display will be advanced machinery and industrial technology from the West, but no weapons.
The exhibitors are showing the technologies that China's defense-related ministries asked to see. According to Andrew Kay, whose Hong Kong company organized the exhibition, each ministry submitted a long list of ``at least 1,000 items.'' Mr. Kay tried to match the lists by attracting defense contractors to the newly opened international exhibition center here.
The largest number of exhibitors is from the US and includes many of its leading defense suppliers, such as Boeing, FMC, Sperry, and Rockwell International. France is also well represented, followed by Britain, West Germany, and 12 other countries. Mr. Kay said the Japanese were invited, but ``they were very cautious and finally decided not to come.''
The defense show begins amid reports that the US is about to announce its largest arms sale to the Chinese. The agreement would authorize China's purchase from the US of advanced avionics (navigation and fire-control radar equipment) for its F-8 interceptor aircraft -- a deal that could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars of sales for US companies.
The Reagan administration is expected to give Congress formal notification of the government-to-government transaction in the next few weeks, according to a report this month in the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Some 55,000 military and civilian officials, and industry professionals have been invited to attend this week's trade show.
Most of the equipment on display is for the manufacture of weapons and defense-related equipment and, say show organizers, would not require licensing through COCOM, Nato's clearinghouse for high-tech sales to communist countries.
A feature of the exhibition will be a series of seminars for the Chinese military. Topics will range from using antitank missiles (a priority defense need for China, since it is outnumbered 5-to-1 by Soviet tanks along its northern border) to transporting of troops by helicopter.
With some 3.2 million men, China has the largest standing army in the world. But its conventional weapons are obsolete, and its nuclear forces very small. The combat-readiness of the Chinese military has taken fourth place in the country's modernization drive, after agriculture, industry, science, and technology.
In the past year, however, military sales by US firms have begun to draw the interest of defense suppliers. China took delivery on 24 S-70c helicopters from Sikorsky last year (valued at $140 million), and General Electric signed a contract for five gas turbine engines (worth about $20 million) to be installed in Chinese Navy destroyers. There has also been an agreement under the US Defense Department's foreign military sales system to sell the technology for manufacturing artillery ammunition (valued at $100 million).
The National Council for US-China Trade estimated recently that US military sales to China would stay at a ``modest'' level in the next few years -- at between $200 million and $300 million a year -- before rising ``significantly'' in the 1990s.