President Jiang Zemin suggested during his meeting with President Bush in October that China could link its deployment of short-range missiles facing Taiwan to U.S. arms sales to the Taiwanese military, a senior Chinese official said.

The official recently described the offer as "sincere and well thought through." The proposal marked the first time China has offered to link the missiles with arms sales and, the official said, "created new space for cooperation" between Washington and Beijing.

The offer seemed to call the U.S. government's bluff on the arms sales issue; for years U.S. officials have used China's substantial and growing missile deployment in Fujian and Zhejiang provinces as the main reason for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. As recently as March, a senior U.S. administration official said a decrease in China's missile deployments would be a precondition for any limit on U.S. arms sales to the island, which lies 100 miles from China's southeastern coast.

But Bush administration officials, responding to a reporter's inquiries in Washington, seemed to have little interest in the Chinese proposal, using words that suggested it was a non-starter as far as they were concerned.

"We will fulfill our commitments under the Taiwan Relations Act," an administration official said. "We have made our position clear, that any issue between Taiwan and China should be resolved without resorting to force or coercion and instead through political dialogue."

The official added that the Chinese idea was "never formally proposed," either during Bush's meeting with Jiang at the president's ranch in Crawford, Tex., or in other meetings. "I don't think anyone would consider it an offer," he said.

Officials suspect that China deploys about 400 missiles within range of Taiwan's cities, airports and other installations, a buildup that is increasing by about 50 missiles a year. The missiles represent the one area in which China has achieved military dominance in the Taiwan Strait. While growing stronger, the Chinese air force and navy are still no match for Taiwan's forces.

China claims Taiwan is part of its territory and has vowed to attack the island of 23 million people if it declares formal independence. Taiwan is a democracy, and successive governments have said that unification with China could be considered only if China undertakes significant political reforms.

U.S. officials have acknowledged that Jiang raised the missile issue with Bush in October, but they have not given details of what was discussed. The Chinese official said the subject was raised again in informal talks between Chinese leaders and a delegation led by former defense secretary William J. Perry last month in Beijing.

"I believe the Chinese leadership would not make an offer like this without having thought it through," the Chinese official said. "It was a very constructive idea. It creates a new space for discussion."

Previously China had said that any issue involving its missile deployments was an internal matter and could not be discussed. China demanded that the United States cut its arms sales to Taiwan unilaterally and offered no sweeteners.

Missile deployments and arms sales to Taiwan "are linked," said the official. "They are interactive."

U.S. relations with Taiwan were codified by the Taiwan Relations Act, which vaguely commits the United States to protect Taiwan's interests. Since it was passed in 1979, successive administrations have interpreted it to mean that the United States would sell Taiwan billions of dollars worth of military hardware.

However, the United States also agreed to limit arms sales to Taiwan in a joint communique signed in 1982, during the first Reagan administration, as long as China pursued unification with Taiwan peacefully. Successive administrations have pointed to China's missile deployments, and its general military buildup, as indications that China is not committed to peaceful unification.

The missile offer is part of a series of Chinese moves designed to "further stabilize" U.S.-China relations, the official said. China has toned down its criticism of Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, and has significantly modified its policy toward the island. It also has toned down criticism of the United States. Its biennial white paper on national security issued today lacked most of the anti-American vitriol that filled the paper in 2000.

China has also dropped its precondition that Taiwan must first accept the "one China" principle before direct shipping and airline links can be inaugurated.

The Chinese official expressed some frustration at U.S. policymakers who, he said, believe China's recent "good behavior" is a result of the Bush administration's tougher policy toward China and clearer support of Taiwan. Under Bush, the long-standing policy of "strategic ambiguity" about whether the United States would respond to an unprovoked attack on Taiwan has been replaced with a much clearer commitment to defend the island.

"China has been making serious efforts to improve its ties with the United States," he said. "Anti-terrorism is important to the United States, and China's support is important to the United States on this front. But you can't expect to request us to support you on counterterrorism and then overlook or even hurt our national security on this other issue."

Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.