West divided on chemical weapons

European opposition to the production of chemical weapons could become so widespread as to threaten the cohesion of the Western alliance, analysts here say. They see the disagreement as being as unsettling as the proposed deployment of new US nuclear weapons in Europe was several years ago.

Last week defense ministers from several West European countries, including Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Greece dissented from general NATO approval of a United States plan to begin producing chemical weapons again after a 17-year lull. No country saw fit to block the US plan.

But several recent developments point to growing European unhappiness with the Reagan administration's proposal to spend $1.1 billion on its so-called ``chemical deterrence'' program.

Earlier this month, the Danish parliament called on its government to dissociate itself from the US plan.

Early last week, Dutch Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek, said that while the Netherlands would not ``torpedo'' the US program, it ``profoundly regretted'' the development of chemical weapons. Any suggestion that the plan had received the ``benediction'' of the NATO alliance would be an ``enormous embarrassment to my government,'' he said.

In Belgium, news of the US plan has triggered noisy exchanges in Parliament, where key members of the opposition Socialist Party were joined in denouncing the plan by members of parties represented in the ruling center-right coalition. No European country, moreover, has said that it will accept deployment of the weapons on its territory without prior consultation.

Last December, the US Congress approved plans to start producing chemical weapons again -- but only if America's NATO allies demonstrated their support for the project. Contingency plans for their use in time of war are now being drawn up by US military authorities.

The US argues that it must begin manufacturing chemical weapons again because the West's existing stockpile is dangerously obsolete and almost useless. It also says the US must match the Soviet Union's chemical weaponry buildup (the USSR is said to have about 300,000 tons, compared to 42,000 tons for the US) in order to pressure the Soviets into negotiating a worldwide ban on such weapons.

``The Soviet Union has about 100,000 troops whose sole duty is chemical warfare,'' said US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger after last week's NATO meeting. ``They have violated their treaty agreements not to use chemical weapons at least twice. . . . If they've done it twice, they're very apt to do it again. So it's absolutely vital that we modernize our chemical weapons.''

Secretary Weinberger said that he did not foresee any problems ushering the administration's proposal through Congress in the wake of some European opposition at the NATO meeting. To some observers here, however, that remains to be seen.

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