Clinton Should Avoid New Nuclear Tests

China's nuclear arsenal is more troubling for its regional impact than for its threat to the US

ON Oct. 5, the People's Republic of China (PRC) tested a nuclear weapon, breaking a worldwide moratorium that has lasted for just over a year. The United States intelligence community had expected the test for some time, and on Sept. 24, after US officials called for a resumption of US testing if China broke the moratorium, senior Clinton administration officials agreed not to begin US testing even if Beijing broke the test ban.

Resuming testing would make no sense whatsoever. It would not deter China from future testing; it would harm US relations with other countries besides the PRC, such as India, Mexico, and Russia; and it would seriously threaten US nonproliferation goals. Rather, the administration is better off maintaining the moratorium and strengthening the international consensus against testing, especially in the face of China's action.

The last test, anywhere, had been conducted by the Chinese on Sept. 25, 1992. Since then, no government had tested a nuclear weapon; and an overwhelming international coalition in favor of a comprehensive test ban (CTB) has been constructed. Even Russia has pressed for a ban on international testing. In fact, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev stated in late June that Moscow will ``probably be the last to carry out tests'' if the moratorium is broken.

On July 3, President Clinton outlined US nuclear testing policy in a radio address when he stated that Washington would extend the moratorium through September 1994 unless another country were to test first. The intention of the US, written into law, is to work toward a CTB by September 1996. In his radio address, Mr. Clinton also stated that if the moratorium were ``broken by another nation, I will direct the Department of Energy to conduct additional tests while seeking approval to do so from Congress.''

Before carrying out this threat, the administration reconsidered what the US would gain by resuming testing. The additional test by Beijing does not threaten US national security. It is the PRC's 38th test, compared with 942 by the US. Additionally, China's arsenal consists of between only 250 and 350 warheads on 60 medium-range and eight long-range missiles. By comparison, the US arsenal, as of April 1993, has 9,000 warheads and even after Start II would have 3,500 - still 10 times as many as the Chinese. The US can clearly deter even a vastly improved Chinese force.

Furthermore, resuming testing would not strengthen Washington's negotiating position with Beijing. Rather, it can negotiate from strength more effectively by refraining. This strength derives from exerting the leadership of the world's sole superpower, and mobilizing multilateral diplomatic and military power, by maintaining the anti-testing coalition. Resuming testing would only weaken support for the CTB and nonproliferation, encouraging every country - including India, Pakistan, and Ukraine - into an ``every country for itself'' mentality and a scramble for nuclear weapons acquisition.

Supporting the moratorium, despite the Chinese test, is the most effective means to halt further testing by the PRC. Multilateral diplomacy will pressure China more than any unilateral action by the US.

But nonproliferation is an even more important goal than stopping China's testing program. The last step to guarantee indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995 is progress toward a ban on nuclear testing. Recently, the US has joined and subsequently led an international effort that has taken dramatic steps toward that end. Destroying that momentum now by giving into Beijing's provocations is not intelligent policy.

If the Chinese will not support the test ban, let them go. The objective, however, must be to prevent them from taking the international consensus against testing, and the coalition in support of nonproliferation, with them.

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