WHILE nuclear tensions tighten on the Korean peninsula, the Clinton administration is quietly trying to stop an arms race now developing in another part of the world: South Asia.
Worried that bitter rivals India and Pakistan are on the verge of major advances in their weapons programs, administration officials have put together a package of arms control initiatives that US diplomats plan to proffer in the region over the next few weeks.
Parts of the package - notably a proposed sale of F-16s to Pakistan - will be controversial in Congress. Strained relations between the US and India pose a further problem.
But the stakes are increasing daily. According to US intelligence reports, both India and Pakistan are working hard on long-range ballistic missiles and both already have the capability to produce nuclear weapons.
``It's not a static situation,'' notes John Holum, head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Analysts have long considered South Asia a highly dangerous nuclear flash point. It is the only part of the world where adversaries presumed to have indigenous nuclear arsenals face each other across a tense border. Fighting over the disputed region of Kashmir continues to loom as a possible spark to wider conflict.
It is probably too late to preach the virtues of nuclear nonproliferation on the Indian subcontinent. Rather, US officials appear to be trying to push India and Pakistan in the direction of capping and then managing their nascent nuclear capabilities.
Missile development is a particular worry. If married to nuclear warheads, surface-to-surface missiles could become fearsome weapons.
Currently, India is thought to be working on two missile systems: the Prithvi, with a 207 mile range, and the 900-mile Agni. Western nations suspect Pakistan, for its part, may have Chinese M-11 missiles with a 207-mile range, as well as a 50-to-100-mile HATF system.
With deployment of some of these missiles perhaps only months away, Washington is intensifying its involvement in South Asian peacemaking.
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott will visit the region next month and propose the new US arms-control plan in both the capitals of Islamabad and New Delhi.
As now envisioned by the administration, the plan has a number of separate steps:
* One calls for both India and Pakistan to agree not to deploy surface-to-surface missiles.
* A second would allow Pakistan to buy F-16 fighter jets - a purchase currently proscribed by US law - in return for a promise to stop production of nuclear material. Islamabad would have to allow international inspectors access to its nuclear facilities, to verify its end of the bargain.
* The US plans to ask India to similarly halt its nuclear material production and accept international verification.
* In addition, Mr. Talbott is expected to ask India and Pakistan to join a South Asian regional security discussion with some of the world's major powers.
``We will try to draw in the Chinese, and perhaps the Japanese, along with America, India, and Pakistan,'' said Undersecretary of State for International Security Affairs Lynn Davis at a breakfast meeting with defense reporters last week.
But the administration's South Asian initiative faces high hurdles.
For one thing, US arms sales to Pakistan are currently prohibited by legislation that took effect when it became clear Islamabad did have the bomb, despite past assurances to the contrary.
The Clinton administration says it wants only a one-time waiver for this law, and not its repeal, but Congress may well be in no mood to go even that far.
The law's author, Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, complained on March 23 that at this point delivery of new F-16s would only give Pakistan greater ability to deliver the nuclear weapons it already likely possesses.
``I think that this would increase the arms race in that region,'' said Mr. Pressler during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.
Strained US ties
There is also the problem of strained US-India relations. New Delhi is miffed by a long delay in the posting of a US ambassador, and by what some Indian officials feel is a US tilt toward Pakistan in the long-simmering feud over Kashmir.
In this context the very prospect of a US F-16 sale to Pakistan may be highly annoying. India's foreign minister has already formally protested the proposal.
India may also have strategic reasons to reject any US arms control initiative. Its long-range missiles may be intended to deter China, as well as Pakistan.
Indian military officials likely feel they already have something of a nuclear edge over Pakistan, and that any reduction efforts would only blunt this advantage.