WHEN the Clinton administration begins negotiating a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) tomorrow, it faces a serious nuclear dilemma: Should it pressure China to stop all nuclear testing immediately (as the United States, Russia, France, and Britain have done) and risk losing China's support for a permanent test ban in 1996? Or should it acquiesce to China's testing in the hopes of cementing Beijing's commitment to a permanent ban?
Both options are fraught with dangers. It is generally believed that China's current series of tests are aimed at developing smaller, more powerful, and more accurate warheads - even multiple warheads - for its arsenal. Yielding to China's current testing plans may allow completion of these warhead modernization projects, a troubling prospect that could increase the nuclear threat to the US.
Moreover, China's testing in the short term could legitimize the claims of testing advocates in France or Russia, leading either or both of these states to break the international moratorium and start a new round of testing. Such events could severely undermine nonproliferation efforts.
However, given the volatile nature of Sino-US relations and China's sensitivity about nuclear testing, Washington's insistence that Beijing join the current moratorium could pose an even graver threat. It could undercut China's already uncertain support for a CTBT and exasperate Beijing to the point where it would not sign at all.
China generally views Washington's positions on testing as intrusive and hypocritical. In response to US condemnation of its last test Oct. 5, 1993, Beijing pointed out the inequality of its situation: Within the last 40 years the US conducted more than 1,100 tests compared with China's 39. China's foreign ministry states that ``China has conducted the smallest number of nuclear tests ... and it is their own business of other countries to handle their nuclear testing affairs.''
Beijing's frustration at US criticism could explode in Washington's face if the US pulls out all the stops to pressure China to cease testing. Washington's agenda with China is overflowing. The administration is already pressing Beijing on illicit missile sales, most-favored-nation status, North Korea, and human rights violations. Nuclear testing, a charged issue that goes to the heart of China's sovereignty, could cause intense backlash.
According to recent news reports, several high-ranking Chinese generals expressed their frustration over Beijing's soft-line stance toward American ``hegemonism'' and ``power politics.'' They gave President Jiang Zemin a petition signed by 180 ranking officers insisting that China take a ``solemn and just stand'' against the US.
Ardent US test-ban advocates will likely favor pressuring China heavily to abandon all current testing plans, condemning any alternative approach as ``Bush-esque'' kowtowing.
Yet certain geopolitical realities must be accepted - namely, that pressuring China on matters of nuclear security exacerbates Sino-US relations and is counterproductive. For better or worse, President Clinton has established himself as moderately ``friendly'' to Beijing with the sale of a supercomputer following China's October 1993 nuclear test. Severely pressuring China will appear inconsistent and belligerent. On the other hand, securing Beijing's inclusion in a CTBT, even at the cost of allowing a current test series, not only will ensure that the modernization dangers resulting from near-term testing don't accrue but also will offer unique long-term benefits to regional and international security.
Primarily, a complete end to nuclear testing by China would cap the main technical vehicle for China to further modernize its nuclear arsenal. Even if China has finished some modernization projects by 1996 when a CTBT is expected to be signed, a test ban would remove any future possibility of the further development of advanced warheads, even ones with multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles.
STOPPING the modernization of China's nuclear weapons on a permanent basis benefits US security interests as well. US defense analysts believe that 50 to 60 percent of China's current missile force is still targeted at the US. As China grows into a regional power, we would not want China to be upgrading to more powerful and more precise multiple-warhead missiles - taking on an offensive nuclear posture at a time the rest of the world is downsizing.
Washington's moves on testing will directly affect nonproliferation efforts. China's unwavering support of a CTBT would go a long way to assuring participants of the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference that the nuclear powers are serious about disarmament and extending the treaty.
Also, an end to Beijing's nuclear testing would preclude serious assistance from China to nations with strong nuclear ambitions that may want more-sophisticated warheads for their missile arsenal. China may have provided information in the past by giving Pakistan previously tested nuclear weapon designs.
Finally, a Chinese program to augment and upgrade its missiles to such an extent that Beijing could more accurately target military and civilian sites in India with multiple warheads would remove any incentive for India to halt or roll back its long-range missile and nuclear-weapons programs. Indeed, the best way to get India into a test ban is to ensure that China is there first.
So far the administration has been focused and cautious with China. This approach must continue. While Washington could pressure China to stop all testing and sign a CTBT, going for broke will likely leave the US with nothing and the world much less stable.
Sino-US politicking remains a delicate affair. The Clinton administration would do well to keep its eyes on the real prize: China's inclusion in a comprehensive test ban treaty. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.