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Cooling Asia's Other Crisis

March 28, 1996



THE crisis in the Taiwan Strait is over. So everyone can relax and go back to worrying about the Russian, Israeli, and American elections, right?

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Not exactly. Those three elections are potentially of historic importance. But big-power leaders should not turn their attention wholly from Asia just because Chinese missile-firing is over and US aircraft carriers have steamed away. There remains a daunting Asian problem to be dealt with sooner rather than later: Indian and Pakistani nuclear-missile programs.

Beijing's missile-lobbing almost totally obscured this action coming to a head 3,000 miles to the west, off China's other border. In terse summary:

India has long since tested nuclear-warhead devices. (First explosion: 1974.) It has developed mid- and short-range versions of its Prithvi missile, which could hit most Pakistani cities within five minutes of launch. India has likely stockpiled enough weapons-grade plutonium to produce 20 to 50 bombs or missile warheads, and can add to that stockpile.

China has recently supplied missiles to Pakistan, and since the early 1980s aided development of a nuclear weapons program. Pakistan is probably readying to test nuclear-warhead material if India runs a test soon.

The two nations have fought three conventional wars in the half century since independence.

The US has tried to deter each side from pursuing its program, and to deter China from aiding Pakistan's effort. Washington now is deciding whether to release a long-delayed shipment of jet fighters sold to Pakistan.

What to do (short range): The US should not release the arms shipment to Pakistan before India's national election ends in May. To do so would only bolster militants demanding toughness on Pakistan and faster nuclear arming.

What to do (longer term): Move forward quietly but urgently on Secretary of Defense William Perry's little-noticed proposal for regular meetings of Asian defense ministers. President Clinton will shortly fly to Japan for talks on renewing the US-Japan defense relationship. He ought to propose that the two nations urge China to support Perry's idea. Then, if regular defense- chief talks start, one of the first topics ought to be how to curb this most dangerous of world nuclear-arms races.