AT THIS important moment, while the United States and the Soviet Union teeter on the brink of a new strategic arms treaty, the chinese have gone public with a bizarre proposal to help the United States verify a SALT agreement. The Chinese no doubt knew theirproposal was was unacceptable, which makes you wonder why they floated it. What they proposed was to let the United States supply the technology and training with which they themselves could moinior certain Soviet missile activites and then report the findings back to Washington. Northing smacking of an American facility would have been allowed on Chinese soil. The Chinese would be running the whole show.

Presumably the Chinese understand well that the United States' loss of important missile-monitoring installations in Iran has set the administration on a frantic hunt for other ways to verify a treaty adequately and to convince the Senate that they have succeeded. One can even guess that, despited the U.S. government's profession of no interest at the monent, some Americans will look at the map, and at the political geograpy too, and wonder why it would not make sense to see just what the Chinese have in mind. But given the intense rivalry between Moscow and Peking and given Soviet apprehensions-only partly contrived-about possible Sino-American military cooperation, it would be a terrible idea. To embark on such cooperation now, and it in the super-sensitive strategic area, could put the whole SALT process at risk.

Moreover, the Chinese, by monitoring SALT, would have a tap hand on a critical channel of Soviet-American relations: an impossible position for either great power to put itself in. Would the Chinese pass on all information monitored? Would the Americans rely on it? Would the Russians be tempted to dismiss reports of violations as Chinese provocations? There are dozens of scenarios, all of them unnerving. However superfically plausible the idea of Chinese monitoring maybe, it is suspect at the core.

But this is not to dismiss for all time the idea of eventual Chinese participation in international nuclear controls. Determined to build up their own nuclear arenal, the Chinese have rejected as a great-power conspiracy all past efforts to draw them into the discipline that the other nations have come to accept, at least in principle, as essential to their and the world's security. If the Chinese were indeed ready to change their mind, that would be a healthy development.

The place for them to start, however, is not by trying to insinuate themselves into the middle of the Soviet-American strategic balance. The proper starting point would be to say, accept the ban most other nations have accepted on atmospheric nuclear testing. Then the Chinese could accepted the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Then they might edge into negotiations with other nuclear powers to better stabileze the strategic relationship between them. In the contest of controls affecting China's own nuclear establishment, participation in monitoring would be welcome and even essential. Otherwise, its proposal seems just a clumsy joke.