As the Reagan administration awaits the visit of Chinese President Li Xiannian later this month, it is scrambling to prepare the US-Chinese nuclear cooperation agreement for a final signing. Although initialed during the President's visit to Peking more than a year ago, the accord was held up because of concern about China's nuclear-nonproliferation policies.
According to congressional and administration sources, the two countries have ironed out the major disagreements over the pact. US envoy Richard T. Kennedy returned recently from high-level negotiations in Peking, where good progress was reported.
But administration officials indicate that time is still needed for the agreement to work its way through the US bureaucracy. It is not certain the signing will take place during President Li's visit.
American companies are eager to see completion of the agreement, which would permit the sale of equipment and technology to China's emerging nuclear power program. The Chinese are securing bids from French and West German companies for nuclear reactors.
But US industry sources say that, if the agreement is signed -- and passes the scrutiny of Congress this year -- it would not be too late for American companies to put in their bids.
President Li will be accompanied by Vice-Premier Li Peng, a nuclear power expert. ``That's why American industry is on edge,'' an industry source says. ``They want to have a crack at him while he's in the US.''
The pact was stalled because of three major concerns: the potential for China to aid Pakistan in developing nuclear-weapons capability; the desire for US controls over the reprocessing of fuel from any American-built nuclear power reactors; and uncertainty about China's nonproliferation guarantees.
Indications are the administration is now satisfied with Chinese clarifications of these issues. Some reports indicate China is now prepared to make a ``voluntary offer'' to place civilian nuclear facilities built with foreign technology under safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Since the US-China accord was initialed, however, Brazil and Argentina and Japan have signed agreements with China explictly calling for IAEA safeguards.
This means that third-world countries obtained better agreements than did the United States, nonproliferation experts say. Whether a ``voluntary offer'' would satisfy critics on Capitol Hill therefore remains to be seen.
The whole issue comes to the fore as preparations get under way for the third review conference of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in Geneva in late August and September. Some observers think the administration could score points at the conference if it had a good US-China agreement in its pocket.
``The US would be able to say that it is sharing technology with a developing country,'' says Leonard S. Spector, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ``If the agreement is a good one, the only congressional opposition would come from the right wing.''