THE United States is trying to persuade China to cancel missile sales that arms control experts say would intensify the threat of sudden war in the Middle East. Reginald Bartholomew, undersecretary of state for international security affairs, aims in talks ending tomorrow to convince Beijing not to sell missiles to Syria and Pakistan that can carry nuclear warheads.
The negotiations in Beijing are vital to Sino-US relations. If China breaks promises and completes the missile deals, it will plunge the relationship to an extreme low, Western diplomats say.
The talks are also crucial to the new, high-priority US initiative to purge the Middle East of ballistic missiles; China menaces peace in the region far more than any other arms merchant, diplomats and arms experts say.
Beijing is the only third-world country to rank with the top four industrialized nations in weapons sales to the Middle East. Along with an array of conventional arms, it has sold Silkworm missiles to Iran and Iraq, and CSS-2 intermediate-range missiles to Saudi Arabia.
China's trafficking in missiles and nuclear materials is particularly worrisome because, unlike other major arms sellers, it refuses to sign agreements restricting the transfer of the destabilizing items, the arms experts and diplomats say.
Unpublicized US intelligence reports indicate that China is helping Iran develop ballistic missiles and materials needed for constructing nuclear bombs, says Gary Milhollin, director of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project, an organization tracing nuclear weapons proliferation.
Beijing has already helped Pakistan advance far in the two fields. Today it is outfitting Pakistan with the M-11 missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead 186 miles, diplomats say.
Beijing also has provided Algeria with a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. But its offer of the intermediate-range M-9 missiles to Syria is especially vexing to US officials, diplomats and arms experts say.
The solid-fuel missile can carry a nuclear warhead at least 372 miles. It is far more accurate and reliable than the Soviet-made Scud missiles used by Iraq in the Gulf War, they say. (See related stories, Pages 3 and 8.)
The introduction of the comparatively advanced weapon to the heart of the Middle East would increase the likelihood of a preemptive military strike, diplomats and arms experts say.
``If China sells the M-9 missile, it would mean a qualitative change in weaponry in the Middle East that would frustrate US attempts to put a cap on missile proliferation,'' says Mr. Milhollin, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin.
China's missile deals contradict its repeated assurances since August 1988. After separate meetings with Chinese officials in Beijing up until March 1991, four top US officials expressed confidence China would not indiscriminatelypeddle the M-9 and other intermediate-range missiles.
China's arms sales will hamper efforts by the Bush administration to persuade Congress not to deny China a preferential trade status worth billions of dollars, say the diplomats. President Bush last year justified a renewal of most-favored-nation trade treatment for China by pointing to its ``restraint'' in missile sales.
The completion of the missile deals ``would be the last straw breaking normal and constructive contacts with China,'' says a Western diplomat.
Since it imposed weapons sanctions and curtailed military contacts after the Beijing massacre in 1989, Washington has had much less influence over China's arms merchants.
The US used its military connections and the lure of high tech weapons in 1988 to coax China into ensuring that Silkworm missiles would not be shipped to Iran. Unable now to directly coerce the heads of China's state weapons corporations as in 1987, Washington must flex most of its limited influence at the Foreign Ministry, diplomats say.
But China's top diplomats - and even its state leaders - cannot control the country's freewheeling arms merchants. On paper, China's six state corporations manufacturing weapons for export must secure the approval of the Foreign Ministry and the State Council, China's Cabinet, before making a sale, diplomats say.
In practice, however, the arms makers either proceed with the sale without approval or present it as a fait accompli to state officials, diplomats and experts say.
``China's theoretical system and actual system [for export controls on weaponry] are at odds: Arms merchants get away with pretty much whatever they want,'' says a Western diplomat.
The weapons dealers enjoy autonomy because of close personal relations, sometimes by blood, to China's aging autocrats, say the diplomats.
Although arms dealers often act beyond its control, the Foreign Ministry has also benefited significantly by advancing a longstanding policy to use weapons shipments to raise its diplomatic clout, the diplomats say.
China facilitated the 1990 establishment of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia through the sale of CSS-2 missiles, former Foreign Minister Wu Xueqian acknowledged in a March 1988 press conference.