CANADA'S Prime Minister Jean Chretien will soon decide whether to allow the United States to test unarmed cruise missiles across a 1,360-mile stretch of northern Canada.
The government delayed one of two such tests reportedly scheduled for Jan. 25. On Jan. 26, Mr. Chretien opened the issue to debate in the House of Commons, though it is he who will make the final decision.
Missile testing is a tricky issue for the new leader because his Liberal Party had long castigated the then-Conservative government for allowing the tests, including in last year's election campaign. Now in office, Chretien is trying to restore public trust in government by keeping campaign promises.
But holding the reins of power lends a new perspective. The problem for Chretien is that national security might be bruised (if not exactly damaged) by refusing testing to the country Canada depends on for much of its strategic security.
``We have had a remarkably good relationship with the Chretien government,'' says a US official. ``If they refuse, this will be the first real black eye in the relationship.... It won't cause a crisis. But if they reject the cruise missile test, the whole range of our defense relationship would have to be reviewed.''
Much of the parliamentary debate focused on the testing's merits. Critics said it was a relic of the cold war whose only purpose was to refine weapons for nuclear attack on the former Soviet Union. Proponents say testing helps refine guidance systems on a type of weapon uniquely suited to beating back third-world tyrants with accurate conventional warheads, as shown in the Gulf war. Official opposition leader Lucien Bouchard, representing Quebec, and Western-based Reform Party spokesman Jack Frazer said the tests were in Canada's best interest.
A close observer of the Liberal government in Ottawa says that Chretien should be taken seriously because of the depth of grass-roots sentiment that opposes testing within his party. Yet, he says, ``there's a certain inevitability behind the scenes that suggests Chretien will ultimately approve the test.''
But a US official says Washington is prepared for ``bad news.'' ``We know he has domestic constituents to worry about,'' he says. Still, ``We definitely need cruise-missile testing. If Chretien rejects the tests, it's not going to help relations.''