DISORDERLY ARMS CONTROL

The Russians have a hot line with China; we have a hot line. They have a ''strategic partnership;'' so do we.

The agreement Chinese President Jiang Zemin made with President Clinton last week is not all that different from the one he made with Russian President Boris Yeltsin three years ago.Ours may be more recent but we do far more business with China than the Russians. American firms have invested $25 billion on the Chinese mainland and two-way trade between our countries now exceeds $60 billion a year, compared to the Russians' paltry $7 billion.

So why are some folks in Washington so nervous about all the bear hugs in Beijing? As Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky pointed out, the timing of Mr. Yeltsin's third summit with Mr. Jiang - so soon after the Chinese leader's U.S. visit - is ''a coincidence, though a very symbolic one.''

Here's why:

First, Russia's partnership with China is closer than ours. Mr. Yeltsin doesn't care about human rights, Taiwan, Tibet, Beijing's weapons sales to rogue states like Iran (Russia, too, is selling nuclear technology and missiles to Tehran) and Chinese naval forays in the Spratly Islands and other oil-rich archipelagoes in the South China Sea.

The only territorial disputes that concerned Moscow were along the 2,670-mile eastern frontier from Mongolia to the Sea of Japan, a source of conflict in the late 1960s. Now that those have been settled with a formal border pact, the only outstanding issue is increasing bilateral trade, with a target of $20 billion by 2000.

Also, Russia's partnership with China is more strategic than ours because most trade between the two is in arms and military technology.

During the Cold War, the Western powers sold weapons and military technology to China in a spirit of anti-Soviet cooperation. But the United States and Europe embargoed such sales after the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

China then turned to Russia, which has become its principal supplier of fighter aircraft, naval vessels and missiles. Among other things, the Chinese have bought four Kilo-class submarines, two Russian missile destroyers, 50 Sukhoi-27 fighter jets and a license to build 200 more. Aviation experts say the SU-27 is, in some respects, better than our F-15.

China, 10 or 15 years behind the United States in military technology, is clearly relying on the Russians to help bridge that gap. And Russia relies on Chinese arms purchases to rescue its own financially strapped defense industry.

What chills Washington is the thought that Moscow may not be exercising strict control over the technology sold to China.

Richard Fisher, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation and author of a detailed study of Chinese arms acquisitions, says the Clinton administration should maintain the arms embargo against China and wage a campaign of public diplomacy against countries that violate it.

But it may be too late for that.

Britain, France and Israel - a close ally and the biggest recipient of American aid - have all relaxed or ''re-interpreted'' the embargo to sell the Chinese advanced military technology. The French are even talking aircraft carriers. And there have been some questionable sales by American companies.

The arms embargo, as it was originally envisioned, no longer exists.

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