ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — TWO years after Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto set out to repair Pakistan's fragile ties with Washington, new irritants in the relationship may undo the progress that has been made.
Pakistan is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with US charges leaked to news media that it received nuclear technology from China, which will most likely endanger its future ties with the US.
Government officials and Western diplomats also fret that the controversy may give the country's hard-line nationalists and Islamists, long opposed to better ties, an opportunity to criticize the government's policies. This stirring of anti-American passions, they say, may eventually force Ms. Bhutto to be more cautious in reaching out to the US.
These concerns are partly motivated by the government's recent treatment of Islamic groups. After a suicide bomb exploded outside the Egyptian Embassy last November, blamed on a group opposed to the Egyptian government, Pakistan cracked down and closely monitored the activities of several Islamic organizations. Many suspects have been detained for questioning by police.
Despite a confirmation from the Central Intelligence Agency that China sold Pakistan 5,000 ring magnets - equipment that could be used to enrich weapons-grade uranium - Pakistani officials vehemently deny reports that China transferred any nuclear-weapons-related technology to them. They insist the technology is for use in a nuclear power project.
Bhutto has tried to shift the attention to her country's archrival and neighbor - India. ''Peace through the entire region is at risk from India's [missile and nuclear] buildup,'' she said. The recent charges were no more than ''a totally baseless and false allegation, systematically planned to divert attention from the real threat to the region [from India],'' she added.
Pakistan has recently expressed concern over reports that India is about to conduct another nuclear test - the first one was in 1974. It is also concerned about New Delhi's recent successful testing of the ''Prithvi'' short-range missile and claims that the weapon, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, is aimed at Pakistan.
Many government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, are more vocal than Bhutto in expressing their frustration with what they see as potential troubles in relations with the US. ''The government will be condemned by domestic opinion if the US decides to take any action [due to the latest controversy],'' says one.
Such concerns also have been fueled by what some see as a further American delay in carrying out last year's so-called Brown amendment, which gives Pakistan delivery of military equipment worth $368 million. The equipment, paid for in 1990, was withheld under sanctions imposed by Congress when the Bush administration failed to certify that Pakistan was not producing nuclear weapons, an allegation repeatedly denied by the Pakistani government.
Pakistan is also waiting to get a refund on the $658 million it paid for the purchase of 28 F-16 fighter aircraft. The planes also were withheld as part of the sanctions. Last year, however, the Clinton administration agreed to sell the planes to a third country and to refund the money.
But with the latest revelations, Pakistani officials now are concerned that progress on those two fronts may be delayed if the nuclear-sales controversy drags on.
''The government will come under attack if the arms sale is further delayed. People would want to know why are we going up a one-way street [to improve ties with the US] with nothing in return from Washington,'' says another official.
'US's most-sanctioned friend'
Pakistan also says that continued sanctions against it are not in the interest of preventing nuclear proliferation in the region. ''My country has been the most sanctioned friend of the US. Sanctions on one country in South Asia, Pakistan, and not the other, India, have actually promoted proliferation,'' argues Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's ambassador to the US.
Other observers here say that the most recent controversy over China may be prolonged while the West closely monitors Beijing in the run up to its 1997 takeover of Hong Kong. That may only increase tensions between China and the West, especially if Beijing is seen to be reversing recent democratic reforms.
''The China question now could be one that would carry on being controversial ... because of the Hong Kong issue.'' says a Pakistani official. Pakistan is faced with the danger of getting dragged into a controversy not necessarily of its own making. The outcome may set the tone for Pakistan's future relations with Washington, say some government officials here.