Time Out in Nuclear Asia

A US-led moratorium on testing is needed to brake competition

BY refusing to take the summit opportunity to match Boris Yeltsin's nuclear-testing moratorium, the Bush administration emboldens hardline forces in Russia. Worse still, this recalcitrance also allows nuclear pressures to mount in Asia.

China's massive nuclear test May 19 hints at the unfolding story in Asia, but there is more. The president of India was in Beijing at the time, conducting the first-ever visit to rival China by an Indian head of state, and the Chinese test was a clear affront. On May 29 India test-launched an Agni missile capable of delivering a medium-sized nuclear weapon into China.

Such nuclear-weapon development in Asia portends volatility not only between the world's two most populous countries, but also among Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and, indirectly, Ukraine. These nations are struggling to define themselves and their relations to each other now that the cold-war order has collapsed. In this unstable environment, even a "routine" warhead test or missile launch can trigger perilous cycles of action and reaction.

The nuclear politics of post-cold-war Asia are extremely complex. India, Kazakhstan, and Russia border China and fear its nuclear intentions. Kazakhstan also fears Russia. China rivals Russia and India. Pakistan, fearful of India, draws residual strength from the nuclear prowess of its ally China, but this in turn agitates the Indians. It also enhances Pakistan's potential to spread nuclear technology in the Muslim world. Washington must become more innovative if it is to help regulate this competition.

All the players would do themselves a favor by calling "time out" - a halt to nuclear-weapons development. In order to win Asian support, of course, the United States and other Western nuclear powers will have to constrain more fully their own nuclear-weapons activities. During this time out a comprehensive confidence-building regime could be pursued to help deemphasize nuclear weapons as instruments of security in Asia and elsewhere.

The Bush administration recognizes the need to sort out nuclear politics in Asia. The administration has proposed a five-nation conference of India, Pakistan, China, Russia, and America to address proliferation issues. India resists, arguing inequity: They believe the US and China - along with other nuclear powers - must stop testing and producing nuclear weapons and reject the doctrine of first-use to receive cooperation from India.

THERE is a way, however, to stop the action and devise a strategy for the new "game." A moratorium can help motivate Asian players to pursue a comprehensive confidence-building agenda. The Bush administration demurs that a US shift in favor of a moratorium still might not bring India into negotiations on Asian nuclear-weapons policies nor definitely induce China to stop testing. These arguments miss two vital points. First, we know already that India will not enter talks if the US does not stop testing. A US moratorium may not be sufficient, but it is necessary.

Second, indications are that China will comply if the US (and Britain) join Russia and France, which have already declared testing moratoria. Chinese officials have said they will not be the only outsiders in a test ban regime.

As global and congressional pressure for a moratorium mounts, the Bush administration reportedly may propose to limit the number of tests the US will conduct annually. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia may float a similar "compromise" to protect the bureaucratic and budgetary interests of the nuclear-weapons establishment.

However, any number of tests greater than zero will not meet the Asian and Russian demands for equity. China will still feel free to test, with ramifications in India, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Russian military leaders will insist on resuming their testing, exacerbating tensions among Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, and provoking Chinese hardliners.

The world stands at an interlude in the nuclear age - between the technical challenge of the past and the political challenge of the future. Technically, the five declared nuclear powers and at least three of the undeclared - India, Pakistan, and Israel - have achieved adequate nuclear deterrence. This was the problem of the past.

The problem of the future is essentially political: to stop the spread of nuclear weaponry and to prevent nuclear competition from exacerbating regional instabilities. The recent Chinese and Indian actions should prompt Washington to do what it takes to call "time out." That is what leaders do at crucial moments.

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