BEIJING - On the eve of his trip to Asia this week, Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen pressed the Clinton Administration to let an American arms maker sell spare parts to China, despite a ban on sales of military equipment imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Administration officials say.
Mr. Cohen did not advocate a general lifting of the sanctions, the officials said, but rather suggested making an exception in the case of Sikorsky Aircraft of Stratford, Conn., the maker of Black Hawk helicopters.
Sikorsky, which sold 24 unarmed Black Hawks to China's military in 1984, has been lobbying the Administration to allow it to sell China replacement engines and other parts, arguing that these should no longer be considered military equipment prohibited by the Tiananmen sanctions.
In internal discussions leading up to Mr. Cohen's three-and-a-half-day visit here, which began this evening, the Administration rejected the idea as premature, and Mr. Cohen agreed to support that decision, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The officials said, though, that the Administration was considering ways to improve relations with China, and that easing the sanctions was among them. That raised the prospect that at least some of the sanctions could be lifted, possibly in time for President Clinton's visit to China later this year, although officials emphasized that no decisions had been reached.
One official said a decision at this time to lift, even slightly, the sanctions on any equipment that would be used by the Chinese Army would provoke too great an outcry on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, and overshadow whatever benefits the United States received in exchange.
"That's a whole lot of heat to take for some spare parts," the official said.
Mr. Cohen declined through his spokesman, Kenneth H. Bacon, to talk about his discussion of the sanctions, saying the Administration's internal deliberations should remain private.
In an interview with reporters during his 12-day tour of Asia, Mr. Cohen said China had to do more to improve human rights, among other things, before the United States could lift any sanctions. But he also made it clear that the sanctions, now nearly a decade old, would not go on indefinitely.
Asked about the possibility of lifting them, he said, "Sometime in the future it may be possible, but I don't foresee it at this particular time."
Nonetheless, Mr. Cohen's willingness to consider an exception to the sanctions underscored the extent to which he is prepared to find ways to improve relations with China in general and its military in particular.
During his visit here, which will include meetings with senior Chinese military leaders and President Jiang Zemin, Mr. Cohen hopes to take steps to increase contacts and build confidence between the American and Chinese militaries.
On Monday, he and China's Minister of Defense, Chi Haotian, are scheduled to sign a document called the Military Maritime Consultation Agreement. The agreement -- essentially a set of rules governing contacts between the countries' navies -- is meant to avoid unintended clashes on the open seas.
Earlier this week, Mr. Chi said exchanges of military officers, among other steps, were already easing tensions, according to the official newspaper China Daily. Those tensions reached a fever pitch when China held provocative military exercises in the Taiwan Strait in March 1996 and the United States responded by sending two aircraft carriers to the region.
There are already signs of improvements. On Friday, an American C-17 cargo plane from Japan flew into Beijing carrying 40 tons of clothing, medicine and other relief supplies for victims of the earthquake that killed 50 people and left thousands without homes in northern Hebei Province, north of Beijing.
Mr. Cohen's visit to China is part of the Administration's efforts to improve relations between the countries. Mr. Cohen is the first Cabinet member to visit Beijing since Mr. Clinton and Mr. Jiang met in Washington in October.
While Administration officials describe a gradual improvement in relations, profound differences remain, and one of the greatest, as far as the Chinese are concerned, is the sanctions.
After the Tiananmen massacre, the Bush Administration imposed an array of sanctions on China, prohibiting investments and trade with its Communist Government, although commercial activity continued. Congress enacted many of the sanctions into law.
The massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators interrupted what had been a small but growing trade in military equipment. Through the 1980's, the United States had, largely in secret, exchanged equipment and intelligence with China as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union.
Sikorsky's sale of 24 of the Army's S-70C Black Hawk helicopters in 1984 was China's first major purchase of American military hardware. Before being delivered to China, the helicopters were stripped of their weaponry, though they were still classified as military equipment because of their advanced motors and avionics, which were made by General Electric.
At the time, the sale totaled $150 million, including spare parts and technical training. Now, nearly 14 years later, the helicopters need repair, and both the Chinese Government and Sikorsky, which is owned by United Technologies
Corporation, have been lobbying the Administration to waive the Tiananmen sanctions enough to allow spare parts to go through.
"Spare parts are vital to the operation of any fleet of vehicles," said a spokesman for Sikorsky, William Tuttle. Mr. Tuttle said that with advances in technology since the helicopters were purchased, the replacement engines and other parts needed for the Black Hawks were no longer considered military hardware, even though they are still covered by the sanctions. He declined to discuss the costs of the equipment.
Sikorsky's case had received support in the Pentagon and in Congress, particularly, Mr. Tuttle said, from Connecticut lawmakers like Representative James H. Maloney of the Fifth District and Senator Christopher J. Dodd, both Democrats.
Sikorsky's case also received a hearing from Mr. Cohen. "He was in the 'Gee, isn't there something we can do about this' camp," one Administration official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Under the law, Mr. Clinton could authorize a waiver allowing the sale to go forward without lifting the sanctions generally.
A senior official said the matter remained under review, but added that it was more likely that the Administration would first consider lifting other sanctions, like those on underwriting American companies or enhancing economic development.
The official said Sikorsky's case, like others involving trade with Chinese companies, many of which are state-owned, would almost certainly provoke a firestorm. All the more so since the helicopters are used by China's Army, offically called the People's Liberation Army, although primarily for transport and search-and-rescue missions, the official said.
"It's really a domestic political issue," the senior official said. "How would we answer the critics who say we're arming the P.L.A.?"
A major part of Mr. Cohen's visit will be devoted to finding ways to increase cooperation with China's military, which remains wary of the United States' presence in the region, particularly American support for Taiwan.
"I think we have to take out relationship step by step and not rush it," Mr. Cohen said in an interview today.