U.S. Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci told Chinese leaders Tuesday that Washington was concerned at China's sales of missiles to the Middle East, a senior U.S. official said.

"We expressed our concern at the transfer of missile technology to Third World countries," the Defense Department official told reporters after Carlucci's talks with Defense Minister Qin Jiwei."This is a very sensitive area," he added.

Diplomats said Washington was strongly opposed to China's supply of anti-ship Silkworm missiles to Iran and its sale of powerful, medium-range missiles to Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Washington recognized that China was a sovereign country and had a right to an overseas arms program.

"But missiles fit a special category," he said.

Qin did not reply to the missiles issue because the two men ran out of time, the official added.

Carlucci also discussed his recent visit to the Soviet Union, the U.S. official said.

Shortly before meeting Carlucci, Qin told reporters China's weapons sales had attracted too much attention and were worth far less than arms sold by the United States and the Soviet Union.

"China is a developing country, and even in the future it will not sell armaments in large quantities," Qin said.

China does not disclose the value of its arms exports, but Western diplomats estimated that they earned Peking about $2 billion last year.

China acknowledges selling missiles to Saudi Arabia but denies selling Silkworm missiles to Iran. It has said it took measures to prevent them reaching Tehran through other channels.

Qin said Sino-U.S. military relations were good but that inevitably problems would arise.

Carlucci said in a banquet speech the military relationship between Washington and Peking had continued to advance and several new cooperative programs were about to begin. He gave no details.

The U.S. official said the talks also covered China's application to use its Long March rockets to put U.S. communications satellites into space as part of its commercial launching program.

Washington was still considering the request and saw the issue as economic and not military related.

Carlucci also met Premier Li Peng and Vice-Premier Wu Xueqian on Tuesday and is to meet China's senior leader, 84-year-old Deng Xiaoping, on Wednesday.

Premier Li Peng denied on Tuesday that China's reform policies had gone into reverse and told Carlucci the country's goals could not change.

"Some foreign journalists have said the reforms are retreating. This is not true; they are not retreating but advancing and deepening. Our goals cannot change," national radio quoted Li as telling Carlucci.

Carlucci will later make a tourist trip to the historic city of Xian and visit a naval base in Shanghai.

U.S. diplomats said Carlucci's six-day visit to China was part of high-level exchanges between the two countries.