FOR most Americans the South Pacific conjures up visions of a tropical paradise of swaying palms, unsullied beaches, and hospitable islanders. Sadly, because of an ill-considered decision by the Reagan administration not to subscribe to a treaty creating a nuclear-free zone in the region, the image of the United States held by the peoples of the South Pacific is not nearly so benign. The genesis of this situation goes back to last December, when the Treaty of Rarotonga, creating a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, went into effect. The treaty's signatories - 13 island nations in the region, including Australia and New Zealand - promised not to acquire, test, or station nuclear weapons within their territories. The treaty also contains restrictions on the disposal of nuclear wastes and codifies safeguards for the transport of nuclear materials.
The US and the world's other nuclear weapons countries, though not signatories to the treaty, have been invited to sign three treaty protocols or appendixes. These protocols would obligate these powers to refrain from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against treaty signatories, from undermining the treaty, and from testing nuclear devices within the nuclear-free zone.
Unhappily, the Reagan administration has responded to this invitation by belittling the treaty and refusing to sign the protocols. This, in turn, has become a source of deep consternation among our friends and allies in the South Pacific. Australia, for example, worked with great success during the negotiations leading to the treaty to ensure that the pact would not interfere with current US activities, such as the transit of nuclear-powered or -armed warships, or otherwise infringe upon US interests.
The administration has conceded that current American practices are fully consistent with the terms of the treaty and its protocols. Moreover, administration spokesmen have stated that the treaty would not preclude the US from doing anything it is either now doing or planning to do in the region.
And yet, the Reagan administration remains stubbornly unwilling to pledge that we will not threaten the use of nuclear weapons against the states of the South Pacific, even though no one contemplates employing our nuclear might in such a fashion.
US foreign policy has indeed reached a sorry state when we are unprepared to forswear the use of nuclear arms against Fiji, Western Samoa, or the other friendly islands in the South Pacific.
Administration representatives justify their peculiar policy by declaring that while this particular nuclear-free zone does not threaten US interests, associating ourselves with a treaty establishing such a zone could set an unfortunate precedent which might obligate us to support nuclear-free zones in other parts of the world where our security would be adversely affected by such arrangements.
Such an argument approaches the ludicrous. The US is already a signatory to a number of such treaties. Indeed, the protocols of the Treaty of Rarotonga in many respects parallel those of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, which bars nuclear weapons from Latin America. Not only did we sign that treaty, we played a leading role in negotiating it. In addition, we are also signatories to the Antarctic, the Seabed Arms Control, and the Outer Space Treaties, all of which have established nuclear-free zones.
It may be that there are certain areas of the world, such as Central Europe, where the establishment of a nuclear-free zone would not be in our interests. But surely the idyllic South Pacific is not among them. Indeed, the nuclear treaty fully meets all of the criteria the US has established for judging whether a nuclear-free zone is in the US's interest.
Our refusal to sign the protocols makes us appear insensitive - and has handed Moscow an opportunity to score propaganda points.
Signing the protocols would strengthen our ties with the island nations in this vital region of the world. A continued refusal to sign will prejudice the possibilities for a constructive and cooperative relationship with these countries.
Acceding to the protocols could have been a cost-free move on our part. Instead, we have gratuitously alienated our friends in the region, handed the Soviets a stick with which to beat us over the head, and ultimately raised doubts about the extent of our commitment to our nuclear nonproliferation goals. This seems, in every respect, to qualify as a classic case of shooting ourselves in the foot.
With these considerations in mind, the Foreign Affairs subcommittee which I chair recently approved a resolution urging the administration to sign the Pacific treaty protocols. We plan to bring this resolution before the full Foreign Affairs Committee and then the entire House in the weeks to come, as a way of showing the South Pacific islanders that the Congress sympathizes with their concerns.
In the longer run, of course, we hope to induce the administration to reverse its ill-advised policies and join with our South Pacific friends in their laudable effort to bar the presence of nuclear weapons from their corner of the globe.