The nuclear showdown in South Asia could turn into a landmark accord on nuclear restraint, if three nations do their part.
Two of those nations, of course, are India and Pakistan. Both have stated their willingness to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that would rule out a repeat of the competitive bomb testing that shook their region and the world last May.
For India, in particular, this willingness is an about-face. New Delhi said for years it would not join the CTBT, viewing it as a big-power ploy to keep others out of the nuclear "club." India's change of heart can be traced to two factors: First, its tests last May served notice it was joining the club regardless. Second, the economic sanctions clamped on by the United States and others following the tests are increasingly uncomfortable.
But India's discomfort under sanctions is mild compared to that of its economically fragile neighbor and rival. Deprived of US and international financial aid, Pakistan finds itself on the verge of defaulting on more than $30 billion in foreign loans. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif struck a note of urgency when he assured a United Nations audience Pakistan was ready to sign the CTBT within a year.
Both Mr. Sharif and India's Atal Bihari Vajpayee face political hurdles before they can make good on their pledges to become nonproliferators. With their publics favoring the nuclear programs, they'll have to show they're getting something in return.
That's where the third nation, the US, comes in. Washington rightly insists that nuclear experimentation carry a price - i.e., sanctions. But it should be just as quick to ease sanctions as countries take such positive steps as accession to the test ban treaty. Congress should give President Clinton the authority to waive economic sanctions tied to nuclear tests. The alternative is to let sanctions go forward and risk a political reaction in India and Pakistan that could close the CTBT opening.
Just as important, the US Senate itself should move ahead with ratification of the treaty. Opponents of the CTBT make the bogus arguments that a ban would allow US nuclear weapons to deteriorate and that Indian and Pakistani tests showed how difficult verification is. Technology exists to address both problems.
US ratification would strongly encourage others to follow suit. India, in particular, has demanded proof that the big nuclear powers are willing to limit their own weapons development. Even with the South Asian powers aboard, full international implementation of the treaty will remain a challenge. North Korea, for example, must somehow be persuaded. But forward movement by India, Pakistan, and the US will lend crucial momentum.