LONDON — London. China, not Iraq, is the world's rogue elephant. With its sales of arms, missiles and nuclear weapons, it has encouraged high-technology tinderboxes in highly volatile corners of the world. It has behaved irresponsibly in the Third World in ways Moscow at its worst never dreamed of.
Armed with its veto at the U.N. Security Council, it is positioned at the fulcrum of the debate on how to create a post-Cold War better world. But, by the example it sets and the votes it makes, it appears determined to thwart progress.
The list of Chinese malfeasances is long. It has given Pakistan an off-the-shelf design for a tested nuclear weapon. It has helped India, Pakistan's bitter rival, develop further its own nuclear arsenal with supplies of heavy water. It has sold Saudi Arabia the CSG-2 long-range missile, whose only use, so inaccurate is it, is to lob a nuclear warhead. Recently it has been caught selling a nuclear-power reactor to Algeria, whose only apparent purpose would be to make nuclear weapons. And it is reportedly negotiating a deal to sell nuclear-capable missiles to Pakistan.
China has spurned all international attempts to tame the nuclear monster. It refuses to participate in the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the Nuclear Suppliers' Group and the Missile Technology Control Regime. (Although, with the latter, the West made a crucial mistake by not inviting China in at its beginning.)
The present Beijing leadership is more careful with its rhetoric, but seems to echo Mao Zedong's brazen nuclear nonchalance, when he used to boast to Nikita Khrushchev that while the Kremlin might think China is ''a paper tiger'' he shouldn't forget ''it has nuclear teeth,'' and that China did not fear a nuclear war, for with its high population and low technological base it could fight one and survive.
What sense or explanation is there in what China is doing today? The continuing arms sales often undercut Beijing's own Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and clearly contradict firm assurances given at regular intervals at the highest levels.
China, it is true, is an authoritarian dictatorship, controlled by a few old men at the top. But truth is more complex. Revolutionary China is now a second- and third-generation business -- and business is often the right word -- where the sons and daughters of the dying-out Long Marchers now have important and privileged fingers in the pie themselves, controlling what, in effect, are private baronies, in some cases taking a percentage for themselves. The most powerful, and most profitable, are those in the arms industry. In this communist-feudalism, none is more successful than Poly Technologies, whose president, Col. He Ping, is married to Deng Rong, the daughter of China's former, and maybe still, paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping.
Theoretically, all sensitive sales are supposed to receive clearance from the Central Military Commission, which, until his retirement in 1989, was presided over by Mr. Deng. Now it's headed by his chosen heir, the party chairman Jiang Zemin. However, the lines of authority in the commission are muddied. China's president, Yang Shangkun, the hard- liner of Tiananmen Square, is its executive vice chairman, and a final say can often be his. Also, over the years, its senior staff have built up their own power center, and are often a law to themselves.
In an article in the current issue of Harvard University's International Security, a team of China experts tries to put a finger on why China goes on selling the most lethal of arms so aggressively. They conclude that it is more a question of making money than any sophisticated or Machiavellian foreign-policy aim.
Belatedly, America is getting tough in its long-time effort to persuade Beijing to be more responsible. At the beginning of the month, President Bush banned the sale of U.S. components for a Chinese satellite, as a sign of disapproval. This week Mr. Bush said he would ask for renewal of China's most-favored-nation trade status, which gives it significant preferential access to the American market place, but the procedure faces opposition in Congress.
China as usual is playing hardball -- making life difficult in the Security Council over the sending of a U.N. police force to the Kurdish areas of Iraq, and making the most of Jiang Zemin's visit to Moscow this week to hint that if Washington is antagonistic, Beijing can always play its Soviet card. Always, too, is the lurking threat that China might close its shutters, particularly the economic ones, and ignore the West.
Mr. Bush shouldn't blink. Moscow made it clear again this week that nothing will get in the way of its first priority, good relations with America. Economically, China needs the West more than vice versa. And in today's world, unlike a short few years ago, no country wins many admirers by being difficult at the U.N.
Times have changed. Beijing must play its part in making the world a less dangerous place, or be denied the advantages of cooperating with the nations that do.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.