US Shouldn't Test Nukes - Even If China Does

Many nonnuclear weapons states say the US position on testing will influence their own policy

RECENT evidence suggesting that the People's Republic of China (PRC) is preparing to conduct a nuclear test creates difficult dilemmas for the Clinton administration.

On July 3, President Clinton announced that the United States would refrain from nuclear testing ``as long as no other nations test.'' The president reiterated this pledge in Monday's speech before the United Nations. Thus, if the Chinese tested, the US would have a basis for resuming nuclear testing. Yet, actually conducting new tests may not be the best response to a PRC nuclear test.

Most likely, officials in the administration did not expect any resumption of nuclear testing. France and Russia endorsed the US position and reaffirmed their resolve not to test first. Britain conducts its tests in the US and is therefore presently unable to do so.

China did not formally forswear testing, but for many reasons was not expected to test.

First, the PRC has generally (if ambiguously) supported a Comprehensive Test Ban (CTB), and the administration's July announcement was clearly intended to facilitate that objective.

Second, the PRC, in making its failed bid to be awarded the 2000 Summer Olympics, worked hard to cultivate a perception of moderated behavior.

Third, there is no threat to the PRC that justifies new nuclear testing.

Fourth, with worldwide opinion largely supportive of a cessation of testing, it seemed unlikely that China would risk international condemnation and isolation on this issue.

The Chinese reportedly have argued that testing is necessary to improve the safety of their nuclear arsenal. However, alternate approaches may be available to address this concern.

For example, the US could offer to provide assistance to safeguard and enhance the safety of the Chinese arsenal, in exchange for a commitment to uphold the moratorium. Whether such an offer was made is not known.

In any case, a Chinese nuclear test would leave the US with hard choices. In July, the president stated that if another nation tested first, he would instruct the Department of Energy to prepare for additional tests and seek congressional approval for new nuclear testing. These are sensible steps. They leave the US well positioned to resume testing, if it is later concluded that testing is necessary.

The real question is whether a Chinese test justifies conducting new US nuclear tests, as opposed to preparing for them. The answer: Probably not.

The connection between whether we test, and whether another nation does so, has political value but is somewhat tenuous. Future US tests would be for safety and reliability purposes. The administration has already concluded that our nuclear weapons are sufficiently safe and reliable. This judgment is not necessarily affected by whether another nation tests.

Moreover, the relationship between our testing and a Chinese test is even more questionable. Chinese nuclear weapons pose little credible threat to the US. The only possible impact a US test may have on the Chinese is to create an excuse for them to undertake additional tests.

The current voluntary pause in testing is precarious at best. Leaders in France and particularly in Russia already are under enormous pressure from domestic constituencies to resume testing.

Many Russian hard-liners, upset with Moscow's obligations under nuclear-weapons treaties and Russia's loss of international influence, would like to resume testing. If the current crisis in Russia is not resolved in Boris Yeltsin's favor, politicians with such views could return to power. British leaders are acceding to the moratorium only because they have to, but many would prefer to test.

A Chinese test will exacerbate these pressures to test. If more countries test, it will be difficult for the US to resist doing the same.

On the other hand, condemning the Chinese test while reaffirming our own commitment to restraint may tamp down pressures for testing from the other nuclear states, and strengthen the US position in CTB negotiations.

Upholding the current moratorium could promote many of the administration's non-proliferation initiatives. For example, the US is seeking an indefinite extension of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many nonnuclear weapons states have made it clear that US testing policy will influence their position on this issue.

A US refusal to resume tests, even after a Chinese test, could strengthen our hand; the attention and censure of the nonnuclear weapons states would be on China, not us.

In his bold announcement of July 3 and in his UN speech Monday, Mr. Clinton seized the agenda on nuclear testing. He should not allow another nation to take it away. Responding in kind to a Chinese test may risk precisely that. 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 to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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