China's defense minister has called for greater emphasis on production of nuclear weapons in the nation's military modernization program.

China developed nuclear arms in the 1960s but has played down their significance in favor of Mao Tse-tung's strategy of guerrilla warfare to defend the vast country. Officials have described the modest Chinese nuclear arsenal as strictly defensive, while calling on the superpowers to stop fueling the arms race.

In an article in the theoretical journal Red Flag, Defense Minister Zhang Aiping said China should concentrate its defense funds on the production of strategic guided missiles, nuclear fuel and bombs.

It was unclear, however, whether Zhang was divulging a policy decision or simply advancing his point of view as part of what is thought to be an intense leadership debate about how to modernize the world's largest military.

He said the nation always should be prepared for danger and "use the present international atmosphere of relative peace to develop as quickly as we can new types of weapons and equipment to strengthen the modernization of national defense."

Advance excerpts of the article were published today by a state-run news agency.

Foreign military analysts in Peking said the article contains the most explicit public emphasis on China's nuclear program in recent memory.

One western analyst said Peking could have decided to stress nuclear weapons because "it may be able to make a bigger splash with less money" than updating conventional weapons.

Little is known of China's defense spending. The published annual budget figures show a defense appropriation of $9 billion for this year, but Peking refuses to disclose how the funds are subdivided by military sector or program. Moreover, actual military spending is believed to be much higher than published because defense funds are buried in other budget categories.

Foreign experts, however, believe a sizable portion of overall military spending goes to the nuclear program as Peking seeks to develop a second-strike capability to deter a Soviet attack.

A credible nuclear deterrent fits into China's current goal of asserting an independent role in global politics. Diplomats say it would make China less vulnerable to Soviet nuclear blackmail.

"It gives them a voice in the world," said a European military analyst. "It's something they can wave at the Soviets."

China's nuclear capability lags far behind that of the Soviet Union and the United States but is said to have made considerable progress since the successful testing of long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles in 1980.

The ICBMs may be several years from deployment, but they are said to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads to any place in the Soviet Union and to the western United States.

In October, China took a big stride toward diversifying its nuclear arsenal by successfully test-firing a submarine-based ballistic missile from under water. But China has only two nuclear-powered submarines, with a capacity of six missiles each, according to western experts.

Zhang, who was directly responsible for the underwater test success as chairman of the Defense Ministry's scientific and technological commission, declared at the time that the test helped "create a new situation" in the nation's military capability.

Zhang, who became defense minister in November, also presided over the nuclear program when a simulated tactical nuclear weapon was detonated in north central China in June.

Foreign analysts are uncertain what kind of explosive was used, but they confirm that a tactical nuclear device, apparently dropped from an airplane, was exploded.

In the Red Flag article, Zhang said China will have to rely on its own efforts to modernize its national defense instead of importing foreign technology or copying foreign models.

He reviewed the history of China's nuclear program since the late 1950s and asserted that "all these breakthroughs in the development of science and technology for China's defense were achieved through independent probing."