LEADING COMPUTER industry executives came to Washington last week lobbying for an easing of restrictions on computer exports, particularly to China. They make a persuasive argument. But theirs is only part of the story. Allowing China to buy more computers in the middle range of capability makes sense only as part of a policy that better controls the sale and use of high-end machines.

Technology is advancing so quickly that year-old export restrictions are out of date today. U.S. regulations require export licenses for machines that China now can buy or cobble together from components available in many countries. The limits should be raised, the executives say; but in the wake of the Cox report, the administration fears the political consequences.

That report was written by a bipartisan House committee led by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). Its conclusions on Chinese theft of nuclear secrets have garnered the most attention, but the report also argued that the administration allowed China to buy militarily useful computers and failed to ensure that they would be used for peaceful, civilian pursuits.

On this page today, Commerce Secretary William Daley takes issue with that conclusion, and with our earlier characterizations of the administration's record. He points out that the administration last summer negotiated with China an agreement allowing end-use inspections of U.S. computers. But he doesn't explain why the administration allowed so many computers to be sold in the absence of such an agreement, or why even now only a half-dozen such checks have been carried out, though hundreds of computers that should by law be checked have been sold. And while Mr. Daley notes that the administration can take punitive actions to enforce the agreement, Commerce officials say that to date such steps have been taken only once (a license was denied).

Mr. Cox says there's reason to ease export limits, but also to develop an international export code among nations that manufacture high-speed computers. An end-use inspection agreement with teeth also is needed. It would serve China's interests as well as those of U.S. industry; if the United States could have confidence that its computers were not being used to harm U.S. national security, it could with confidence approve the export of computers even more powerful than industry lobbyists now hope to sell.