IN deciding in late May to condition China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status solely on Beijing's human rights policies, President Clinton postponed a decision on an equally important issue: how to obtain China's compliance with nonproliferation rules.
He had little choice, however, because in late May and early June, he faced an excruciating nonproliferation dilemma with Beijing.
United States intelligence analysts had recently determined that China had transferred short-range M-11 missiles to Pakistan. The transfer violated pledges given to Secretary of State James Baker III in November 1991 that China would abide by the multinational Missile Technology Control Regime. Worse still, CIA Director James Woolsey testified in February that China apparently was continuing to assist Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, a serious violation of China's obligations under the Nuclear Non-Pro liferation Treaty, which it joined in March 1992.
China's pending sale of a nuclear power plant to Iran was another US concern. Though the sale was legal under the treaty, Washington had sought to freeze all nuclear transfers to Iran because of concerns that it was mounting a clandestine nuclear-weapons program.
These steps by Beijing demanded a tough US response. Unfortunately, Washington also desperately needed China's help on an equally pressing nonproliferation matter: On June 12, North Korea's withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, announced three months earlier, would take effect.
As North Korea's only remaining military ally and economic patron, China was uniquely positioned to persuade Pyongyang to stay in the treaty. To solicit China's help, however, Mr. Clinton needed to stay on friendly terms with Beijing. This would be impossible if he threatened to withdraw its MFN status or applied other sanctions to obtain a change in China's export policies.
Thus when Clinton announced that he would tie China's MFN status solely to human rights and would address China's nuclear and missile behavior by means of other, more narrowly focused initiatives, he was not merely refining US MFN policy - he was deliberately postponing action on China's dangerous exports because of an unresolvable conflict with another US nonproliferation goal that could be advanced only with Chinese assistance.
Clinton's predicament reveals only part of the growing importance of China in global nonproliferation affairs, and only part of the policy troubles that lie ahead for Washington.
China's decisions about its nuclear arsenal and participation in nuclear-arms-control efforts are having increasing global repercussions. Along with the US, Russia, Britain, and France, China is one of the world's five declared nuclear-weapon states. It is grouped with Britain and France as a "middle nuclear power," possessing hundreds of nuclear weapons, in contrast to the 20,000 to 30,000 held by each of the two superpowers.
China's nuclear armory is in some ways less advanced than those of Britain or France. Nonetheless it has dozens of missiles with an intercontinental reach. Some Western experts say that it possesses more nuclear weapons overall than the two other middle nuclear powers combined. Like them, it has not joined nuclear-arms-control talks pursued by the superpowers, asserting that it will consider reducing its nuclear arsenal only when the superpowers have cut their stockpiles to roughly comparable levels.
While it is hard to fault Beijing for this aloofness given current disparities in nuclear strength, Beijing may have to join nuclear-arms-reduction talks before long. If the START I and START II treaties between Russia and the US are implemented, by the year 2000 the superpower arsenals could be reduced to about 3,000 to 4,000 weapons each. Moscow and Washington will be unlikely to consider further reductions without proportional cuts by China and the other middle nuclear powers.
A more immediate concern is that China's nuclear-testing policy may determine whether a comprehensive test ban can be implemented. The US, Russia, Britain, and France have temporarily halted tests. China, however, never has announced tests, and more may be in the offing. In each of the countries adhering to the moratorium, pressures are growing from military and nuclear constituencies to resume testing. If one resumes, the others will follow. Unfortunately, continued testing by China could have the same effect.
Chinese participation in a formal test-ban treaty will be essential if such a treaty is to be extended to India, Israel, and Pakistan, the three other states capable of deploying nuclear arms quickly.
PROSPECTS for a test ban could also determine whether the nonnuclear signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty will support a substantial extension of the pact when it comes up for renewal in 1995. For years these states have demanded such a freeze. With talks on a global test ban likely to begin before the end of the year, China shortly will be forced to decide whether it will actively back the effort. Once again, Washington will have to play the role of suitor.
Washington also will need Beijing's cooperation to slow the nuclear-arms race between India and Pakistan. India has said it refuses to accept restraints because of concerns about the nuclear threat it faces from China.
Finally, Clinton must bear in mind the gravest Chinese nuclear danger of all: the risk that with the death of Premier Deng Xiaoping, China will break apart and its nuclear arsenal will fall into the hands of regional leaders. China has a long history of "warlordism." Outside analysts already have noted increasing regional tensions, as economic disparities between them grow. "Nuclear warlordism," which almost emerged during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, could be the ultimate proliferation nightmar e.
To avoid it, the US must help promote Chinese stability. This means fostering greater economic and political ties, not inflicting punishment through sanctions or other means.