BEIJING, JAN. 23 -- In his first major policy statement since becoming China's Communist Party chief nearly three months ago, Zhao Ziyang announced today a new export-led economic plan that could open China to broader foreign trade and investment.

The new policy also could turn China into a competitor for export business with the "four dragons" of Asia -- South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore -- and even with Japan, a western economist here said.

The economist said Zhao's statement represents "a major conceptual turning point" that will convert China into more of a free-trade zone and offer greater opportunities to foreign businessmen.

In a lengthy statement published throughout China today, Zhao instructed the country's coastal provinces to establish new links with foreign investors and make a bold entry into world markets.

Zhao called for greater use of foreign expertise to manage the country's low-cost labor as part of the effort to increase exports. He said anyone -- Chinese or foreigner -- should be allowed to run a business in China as long as he is competent to do so.

And China should not begrudge foreign businessmen their profits if they also work to the benefit of China, Zhao said.

"If foreign businessmen in joint ventures make more money by exporting products, we can also get an increased share," he said.

China opened its doors to foreign investors in the late 1970s, and today ventures that are jointly managed by foreigners and Chinese can be found throughout the country. But the total amount of investment has been limited by numerous difficulties, disappointing many Chinese and foreign experts. The main problem has been the inability of many foreign companies to convert their earnings in Chinese currency into foreign exchange so that they can get their profits out of the country.

Zhao's statement appears to address some of these concerns, but one veteran diplomat here said investors will want to hear more about implementation of the new policy before they rush to invest in China.

Zhao's statement shows the nearly parallel directions that both major communist nations are taking in economic policy, with the Chinese being a few steps ahead of the economic restructuring, or perestroika, taking place in the Soviet Union. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, during a meeting in Washington last month with U.S. businessmen, made a point of saying that profits for foreign companies doing business in his country are not bad as long as their products help the Soviet Union improve the efficiency of enterprises.

{In Washington, Roger Sullivan, of the Council for U.S.-China Trade, called Zhao's statement "a good sign" for U.S. companies trying to do business in China. "This will reduce the foot-dragging (by the Chinese bureaucracy) but it won't eliminate it," he said. "It will make things better; how much better we don't know."}

A Chinese source said Zhao's statement was of "strategic importance," because "it is the first sign of how far he wants to go in tying China to world markets." The source said the new policy would mean higher risks for China but also a bigger potential payoff.

Analysts said Zhao and other Chinese leaders have been greatly impressed by the example of the "four dragons," all of which achieved rapid economic growth largely through exports.

A potential disadvantage of the new policy is that, by speeding up development in the coastal zones, it will increase the gap between the more developed coast and the poor and backward inland provinces.

But Zhao justified this by saying that, because of big differences between the coastal and inland areas in economic and cultural conditions, "it is impossible to promote economic development in different parts of the country at the same high speed."

Nearly one-fifth of China's population of 1.07 billion people, including the country's best educated and most highly trained workers, live in the coastal areas.

A western economist said one reason for China's choice of export-led growth was a "window of opportunity" that has opened for this country as a result of the foreign currency appreciation in such countries as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

China achieved record export earnings last year, partly because its currency is pegged to the plunging U.S. dollar, making Chinese exports cheaper.

Last year, China exported $34 billion worth of goods and reported its first trade surplus since 1983, according to a trade official's statements last month reported by The Associated Press. Zheng Tuobin, minister of foreign economic relations and trade, said China's exports from January to November were more than 14 percent higher than in the same period in 1986.

China ran a trade surplus with the United States, exporting $2.6 billion worth of goods, he said. Zheng did not give import figures, but the AP said the U.S. Commerce Department predicted the U.S.-China trade imbalance would be $3.8 billion for 1987. China's top three trade partners are Japan, Hong Kong and the United States, in that order.

Until recently, China has been reluctant to approve more than a few wholly foreign-owned enterprises operating here. Most enterprises using foreign capital are joint ventures. But Zhao's statement indicated that more widespread foreign ownership was envisioned.

Zhao's statement consists of a series of comments, unpublicized until now, that he made while touring coastal provinces, from north to south, in recent months. It covered more than half of the front page of today's People's Daily, the leading Communist Party newspaper.

China recently announced a reform of its foreign trade system, allowing export-oriented enterprises more autonomy and more control over their foreign exchange earnings.

Staff writer Stuart Auerbach contributed to this report in Washington.