Use China's Bomb Test to Start New Talks

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CHINA'S 40th nuclear test held on June 10 exploded with a bizarre 100-kiloton silence. Long anticipated, the test was lost amid the crisis in North Korea. The United States responded by simply declaring that it ``deeply regrets this action.''

Washington must seize the occasion of the latest test as an opportunity to engage Beijing about its nuclear testing and general nonproliferation concerns.

Beijing has been clear about both its intention to sign a comprehensive test ban treaty when completed in 1995 or `96 and its plans to continue testing in the interim. Establishing a dialogue on nuclear-testing issues would reinforce China's support for a permanent test ban and possibly curtail its future plans to test by convincing Beijing that its testing goals should reflect its responsibilities as a nuclear power.

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To be sure, this ``nuclear dialogue'' must be coupled with stern reproach concerning the irresponsible timing of the June 10 test. Conducting a nuclear explosion in the middle of the post-cold-war nonproliferation crisis in Korea sends exactly the wrong message to Pyongyang, namely that nuclear weapons are so vital to a nation's security that China, North Korea's last major ally, must upgrade and expand its arsenal while others dismantle.

The primary function of China's nuclear-testing program is to develop smaller, higher-explosive-yield, and more-accurate warheads, which are needed for a set of more-advanced ``second generation'' ballistic missiles under development. These new missiles would replace outdated models, some of which have been deployed for over 20 years.

China is investing in these new missiles to provide a more reliable and survivable (i.e. less vulnerable to enemy targeting) nuclear missile force. Since the more advanced missiles are all solid-fueled and road-mobile (not liquid-fueled or stationary), they can be moved and launched more quickly than their predecessors.

Given the low technological base of China's current missile force, these missile-warhead modernization plans that rely on nuclear tests do not drastically increase China's future nuclear capabilities. The majority of China's new nuclear missiles will have the same range, meaning China cannot add new targets, and will have smaller payloads, which forsakes the ``flexible response'' option since such miniature warheads are only good for nuclear, not conventional, munitions, unlike their forerunners.

Thus, China's nuclear renovation efforts aim to develop a more reliable second-strike, retaliatory nuclear force, not a first-strike capability to attack several targets on a moment's notice, as some argue. Indeed, China has always been at the forefront of advocating ``no first use'' pledges by all nuclear-weapons states.

Therefore, China's nuclear tests, and the warheads upgrades that these tests support, pose a marginal, if any, increase in threat to US security. However, the real danger lies in a deteriorating Sino-US relationship that results in an unrestrained expansion of the number and sophistication of China's weapons in defiance of global efforts toward a test ban and extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Washington can easily preempt this possibility by using China's June 10 explosion as a chance to engage Beijing concerning not only nuclear testing but also other pressing security concerns, such as North Korea.

Beyond the military necessity of the nuclear test, China conducted it to reaffirm its independence from US dictates, demonstrating that China does not capitulate under US pressure, especially regarding sensitive nuclear issues.

Establishing a ``nuclear dialogue'' would provide an opportunity for the US to persuade Beijing that its independence as a nuclear nation comes with substantial responsibility. China must recognize that despite its excuse as the ``latecomer'' in the nuclear club, continued nuclear testing undercuts support for the current testing moratorium (French backing is already waning), complicates ongoing negotiations for a comprehensive test ban, and prompts many nonnuclear states to seriously question renewal of the nonproliferation treaty next year.

Given these dangerous outcomes, China must realize that regardless of its record as the ``least tested'' nuclear nation, conducting tests when all other nations have stopped can only tarnish its al-ready-dubious image as an international arms-control advocate.

A Sino-US military dialogue would not be without precedent.

In October 1993, the Clinton administration reestablished high-level military-to-military contacts with China's People's Liberation Army. As part of this outreach, US Defense Secretary William Perry established the Joint Commission on Defense Conversion to study China's experiences with defense conversion for application to US industries. The joint commission proves that Washington and China's military can hold meaningful and productive discussions.

However, Beijing must be taken to task for the timing of its latest nuclear test, which signals to North Korea and other potential proliferators the importance Beijing places on the international status and military utility of a nuclear arsenal.

Following the June 10 test, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said, ``China has all along exercised great restraint in conducting nuclear tests'' but in doing so Beijing has apparently disregarded its use of judgment. Excuses aside, conducting a 100-kiloton test amid the North Korea nuclear crisis demonstrates a complete lack of responsibility on the part of China.

Starting a Sino-US dialogue on nuclear testing would benefit both Washington and Beijing. It would shore up a strained relationship by preventing testing from devolving into a struggle of national independence versus international authority.

Such exchanges would provide a framework to address both China's testing needs and Washington's concerns regarding the irresponsibility of China's actions. They would highlight the negative signals - especially to North Korea - that continued nuclear testing sends out. 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.

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