The West German government called yesterday for exhaustive arms control negotiations to limit deployment of neutron warheads before actually stationing the U.S. weapons in Europe.

Spokesman Klaus Boelling's statement was the most definitive on the subject so far by the government of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, yet it still failed to take a clear stand on the future of the weapon.

The neutron weapon kills primarily by radiation rather than blast and hence is seen by some critics as a design to preserve property but not lives. It has touched off arguments in many countries -- but especially here where it is to be based -- about whether it would be a greater deterrent than existing atomic weapons, and whether it would be more dangerous because it might be used more readily. The warhead was offered for use against an invasion across densely populated central Europe.

Yesterday's statement took the same tone as a resolution passed last fall by Schmidt's Social Democratic Party, after the party convention had rejected proposals to oppose absolutely the weapon's deployment here.

Boelling's statement said the decision on whether to produce the weapon is exclusively for the U.S. administration. But the question of fielding it in Europe, should the White House decide to produce it, would be a subject for allied consultation.

The Bonn government is suggesting that the roughly two years' lag time between a decision to mass produce the weapon and actual stationing overseas be spent in efforts to negotiate it out of existence during arms talks with the Soviets.

British Prime Minister James Gallaghan recently expressed a similar view, although he seemed to take a tone more favorable to the weapon, describing it against a backdrop of heavy Soviet weapon developments.

The weapon issue has split Schmidt's Social Democrats, although most seem to be reluctantly in favor of development if necessary. The conservative opposition parties have already called for its deployment and the small but important Free Democrat Party, Schmidt's coalition partner, also recently issued a generally positive statement.

Because the weapon is so controversial here, Schmidt has shied away from giving the White House the public vote of approval on production that Washington seeks before making its decision on production of the weapon.

The normally pro-Social Democrat newspaper Neue Ruhr Zeitung has sharply criticized Bonn's reiticence as unfair to the United States.

"A statement that a final decision rests exclusively with the U.S. and that Germany must not influence that decision, reflects an absolute lack of political responsibility. Since European security is involved, we fail to see why the European allies should not take a stand. We cannot expect the U.S. to protect the Europeans with the neutron weapon against their will," the paper said.