WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Clinton eased export restrictions on computers today, making it easier for the high-technology industry to sell more powerful systems to foreign countries.

``These policies will strengthen America's high-tech competitiveness, while maintaining controls that are needed to maintain our national security,'' Clinton said in a written statement. ``These reforms are needed because of the extraordinarily rapid rate of technological change in the computer industry.''

The industry had sought the change because current restrictions, designed to keep advanced technology out of the hands of hostile militaries, have failed to keep up with the advances in commercially available computers.

Of particular interest to the industry is the vast market in China, which has been under scrutiny for allegedly spying on U.S. nuclear labs. The new, more relaxed guidelines will cover sales to China.

``The Chinese market is growing about twice as fast as the world market (for computers), about 29 percent a year,'' said James W. Jarrett, president of Intel China, a subsidiary of Intel Corp. ``And the Chinese PC market is now third or fourth largest in the world, and given its growth rate should be No. 2 in a couple of years.''

Clinton said that maintaining the current restrictions would hurt U.S. exports without benefiting national security.

``Computers that are widely used by businesses and can be manufactured by European, Japanese and Asian companies will soon exceed the limits that I established on high-performance computers in 1996,'' Clinton said.

The decision could affect exports to about 100 countries, from the former Soviet bloc to Latin America.

The restrictions on sales to what are classified as ``Tier 3'' countries currently allow export of systems that can perform 7,000 million theoretical operations per second for civilian use and 2,000 million per second for military use.

Now, computer makers will be able to sell systems for civilian use that perform 12,300 million operations per second. Technology that could have a military application will be limited to 6,500 million per second.

The industry had been pushing to raise the limits to 30,000 million operations per second.

Clinton said he would review the limits again in six months.