The Reagan Administration, in its third public complaint in less than a year about Chinese arms dealings in the Middle East, voiced alarm Wednesday that Beijing might sell newly developed short-range missiles to Syria.
"We would view the sale of such missiles to Syria with deep concern," State Department spokesman Charles Redman declared.
He said the United States has talked to China about the possible deal with Syria, which is said to be under discussion but not yet completed. China had no immediate comment on the U.S. complaint.
One senior State Department official said that if Beijing goes ahead with the deal, "it would be a provocative development." He argued that it would be much more serious than China's recently disclosed sale of intermediate-range missiles to Saudi Arabia.
"The Syrians are just a much more aggressive power than Saudi Arabia," he said.
If Syria obtains the Chinese missiles, they would pose a new threat to Israel, which has also been seeking to head off the sale. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres recently told the Israeli Parliament that the sale of the missiles is not imminent but is "at the negotiating stage."
The proposed sale to Syria is the latest reflection of China's extensive arms dealings in the Middle East, which have become an increasing irritant in relations between China and the United States.
Arms to Iran
Last year, the Reagan Administration complained about China's sale of Silkworm anti-ship missiles to Iran, which pose a threat to U.S. vessels in the Persian Gulf. Early this year, the United States discovered the Chinese sale of CSS-2 intermediate-range missiles to the Saudis.
U.S. officials believe that the principal motivation underlying these arms sales is China's need for foreign exchange.
"The Chinese seem to be driven blindly by moneymaking," one Reagan Administration official said. "Their commercial interests are outweighing their strategic sense."
According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, China sold $5.2 billion in arms to the Third World between 1984 and 1987. Approximately $2.5 billion of the sales went to Iran and another $1.5 billion went to Iraq, the report said. Iran and Iraq have been at war since 1980.
Desire for Influence
Beyond the commercial factors, the arms sales appear to reflect China's particular desire for political influence in the Middle East. One U.S. official said he would not be surprised if China were to conclude new arms deals with other countries in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan.
China also has quietly developed military ties with Israel, which has provided some help in modernizing the People's Liberation Army. Earlier this year, an Israeli arms dealer named Zvi Gafni was sentenced to two years in jail in Hong Kong after pleading guilty to charges of possessing six false passports that had been used by Israeli businessmen.
One American official raised the possibility that if China goes ahead with the sale of missiles to Syria, Israel could retaliate by curbing these military links to China. However, in recent years Israel has pressed repeatedly to establish diplomatic relations with both China and the Soviet Union, and it probably would be reluctant to take any action that would undercut these efforts.
Displayed at Shows
According to U.S. officials, China recently began showing photographs and specifications for a newly developed missile called the M-9 at international arms shows, and it was through these displays that the United States learned that Syria might buy such a missile. The M-9 is a surface-to-surface missile with a range of about 375 miles.
"The United States is concerned over the dangers posed by the global proliferation of ballistic missiles," Redman said Wednesday. "Especially disturbing are such sales to regional hot spots such as the Middle East. We have raised these concerns with China and other countries."
Last October, in retaliation for China's sales of Silkworm missiles to Iran, the United States temporarily froze the liberalization of export controls for sales of U.S. technology to China. Redman would not say Wednesday whether the United States might take similar action once again if China sells the M-9 missiles to Syria.
But a senior State Department official warned that if China goes ahead with the Syrian sale, "that will inevitably raise questions" about providing new U.S. technology to China.