With steam gathering in Congress to revoke China's most-favored-nation trade status, President Bush fears U. S.-China relations are headed for the rocks. Still, Bush is reluctant to go out on a political limb for China because of growing complaints that his light-touch approach to the Communist regime has backfired. Instead, he's sending U. S. Under Secretary of State Robert M. Kimmitt to Beijing to do some mind-bending. Kimmitt will read the riot act on issues that are straining relations between the two countries when he meets with leaders in Beijing on May 5-6.

Kimmitt will warn them that they stand to lose U. S. trade privileges and jeopardize exports to the U. S. (worth $15 billion last year) unless they improve their record on human-rights abuses and exports of sensitive technology as well as unfair trade tactics.

Especially worrisome are reports that China has been exporting nuclear technology to Algeria and plans ballistic-missile sales to Pakistan and Syria. On Apr. 30, the Administration raised a warning flag by barring the sale of U. S. parts for a Chinese domestic-communications satellite. Kimmitt will follow up by urging China's leaders to allow international authorities to inspect the nuclear transfers.