President Carter said yesterday that it is "highly unlikely" that he will approve the sale of 10 M-60 main battle tanks to Zaire.

Carter was asked during his news conference about the inclusion of $30 million in military sales request for Zaire in the administration's budget proposals for the next fiscal year.

The request, which appeared to run counter to administration statements that only "nonlethal" equipment would be sent to the embattled army of Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko, was confirmed Thursday in Senate subcommittee testimony by a State Department official.

The President said yesterday that the $30 million request, which would include 10 battle tanks and 10 armored personnel carriers, resulted from a study conducted by the Ford administration.

"This question has never come to my attention since I have been in office until this morning," he said. "I have made no decision about sending tanks to Zaire. And I think it is highly unlikely that I would advocate such a sale."

Rep. Don L. Bonker (D-Wash.) moved yesterday to help solve the problem. He said he will ask the House International Relations Committee to cut out the administration's $30 million arms aid request for Zaire next year.

Carter's comments appeared to reconfirm administration policy on sending arms to Zaire, which had been left in doubt following the testimony of Lucy Wilson Benson, under secretary of state for security assistance, before the Senate Foreign Assistance Subcommittee.

Benson was asked about the military sales requests for Zaire Thursday by Sen. Dick Clark (D-Iowa). Citing the administration's stand on human rights, Clark said, "Zaire is a military dictatorship . . . So why are we providing them with these arms?"

Benson replied that there was "no clear-cut answer" but that Mobutu's disregard of human rights is "not pervasive - it's an on-again, off-again thing."

The President said yesterday that his human rights policy was not the controlling factor in decisions on aid for the Mobutu regime, which is being threatened by Katangan insurrectiorist troops based in neighboring Angola.

"I know that there are some problems in Zaire with human rights as there are here and in many other countries," he said. "But our friendship and aid historically for Zaire has not been predicated on their perfection in dealing with human rights."

The Ford administration supported providing military aid to Zaire and included it in its budget proposals for the next fiscal year. That request remained in the budget after Carter administration revisions. However, the transfer of military equipment to Zaire would require the President's approval, which he said yesterday is "unlikely."

Last week the State Department announced it was sending an immediate $13 million in "nonlethal" aid to Zaire, but has rejected Mobutu's request for arms. According to administration officials, Carter recently disapproved the sale of empty ammunition clips to Zaire on the grounds they were too close to being lethal.

On another foreign policy question, the President said that on a recent trip to China his son, Chip, delivered a message to Chinese leaders expressing "friendship and goodwill and a mutual agreement" that eventually the United States and China should "normalize relationships." But Carter said that he does not expect to visit China this year and that Chinese leaders refuse to come to the United States because the United States recognizes the government in Taiwan.

Asked about former President Ford's recent criticism of him, Carter said, "I don't feel threatened by President Ford's criticisms . . . I have a good relationship with President Ford."

Vice President Mondale, in Carter's presence, recently criticized Ford for his comments. Asked if he agreed with Mondale, the President said only that Mondale "has a right to express his opinion."

Late yesterday, the White House also announced that Carter will meet with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Geneva on May 9. The meeting will come during a six-day trip to Europe Carter will make May 5-10.

He will also tour northeastern England with British Prime Minister James Callaghan, attend an economic summit conference with the leaders of Western Europe, Canada and Japan in London and a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also in London.