China's agreement to stop selling missiles with a range of more than 186 miles to Pakistan augers well for Sino-American cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat. Only if Beijing and Washington work together can there be a breakthrough in stalled negotiations with the Pyongyang regime. The added payoff could be a decline in tensions between India and Pakistan.
The United States in 1992 barred the sale of military-potential satellite equipment to China after accumulating evidence that Beijing was selling parts for its M-11 missile to Pakistan. Although China denied U.S. allegations that it was in violation of its agreement to abide by provisions of the 25-nation Missile Technology Control Regime, which is designed to curb missile proliferation, it finally accepted U.S. contentions that the M-11 missiles have an "inherent capability" of exceeding the MTCR's 186-mile limit.
The prohibition on satellite sales to China deprived U.S. companies of revenues in excess of half a billion dollars. So the settlement of this dispute, as is so often the case when sanctions are lifted, will provide benefits for both sides. Beyond the material gains, it was another step in the crusade to prevent the spread of nuclear weaponry and make this a safer world. With China out of the picture, there are hardly any nations left (North Korea is an exception) that are involved in peddling missiles that could carry a nuclear payload.
Sino-American relations, always difficult, are at a critical juncture. China is eager to have President Clinton pay a state visit next year, but Mr. Clinton is understandably reluctant. The president took a lot of criticism after his wise but controversial decision last May to extend normal trading relations with China despite its dismal human rights record.
Since then, China had made no effort to improve its behavior -- a fact American negotiators frequently bring up. Mr. Clinton will be meeting with China's President Jiang Zemin next month in Indonesia at a multi-lateral trans-Pacific conference. In the background of all these contacts is internal Chinese maneuvering over the succession to an increasingly feeble Deng Xiaopeng.
While the United States has had good reason to be angry about Chinese missile sales, Beijing is currently aggrieved about American diplomatic gestures toward Taiwan. This is typical of a relationship between two giant powers whose differing ideologies have not prevented a gradual if awkward rapprochement. The irritants remain, cropping up all over the diplomatic landscape, but beyond them is a mutual interest in Asian stability that in the best of circumstances should find them working in tandem rather than at loggerheads.