Upsetting Asia's Atomic Applecart

Global rules to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons have so eroded in Asia that the US has had to engage in a strategy of ad hoc nonproliferation.

Simply put, the strategy is one of playing favorites and warding off potential enemies. Virtually gone are the universal rules of the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

India, for instance, received the blessing of the Bush administration this week to expand its nuclear energy and weapons programs - despite the fact that India tested atomic weapons in 1998 and is not an NPT member. Mr. Bush promised India's visiting prime minister that he would seek congressional and international approval to sell nuclear technology to this burgeoning US ally. Pakistan, too, has recently been let off the hook for its 1998 nuclear tests.

China, on the other hand, was given a cold shower in a Pentagon report released Monday. The report claims China is improving its nuclear and missile capability to allow it to strike "virtually all of the United States." And it warned US military planners to prepare for China becoming a "strategic rival" in Asia.

Next week, the US sits down with North Korea and four of its neighbors (including China) for much-delayed negotiations to rid Pyongyang of any nuclear weapons or a capacity to make them. North Korea was caught cheating on a 1994 pact by resuming its nuclear program, forcing it to drop out of the NPT. These latest talks may achieve the US goals.

In all these moves to shape Asia's military future, the US needs as many partners as it can muster. But even longtime ally Japan appears to be inching toward ending its ban on nuclear arms in the face of threats from China and North Korea. Taiwan, too, needs more defenses in the face of 650 to 730 mainland missiles deployed against that island nation.

To his credit, Bush did win limited concessions from India to suspend its tests and to allow international inspectors of its civilian nuclear programs. But that's a limited victory for nonproliferation if other nuclear powers, such as Russia, decide they, too, can go around a central rule of the NPT and sell nuclear technology to non-NPT nations.

Unlike Europe, which has woven a peaceful net over itself, Asia needs a compact to reduce a rush to arms, especially nuclear ones. The nations in the region are unable to do it themselves because of historic tensions.

With the NPT weakening, the US is largely left alone to create a new nonproliferation scheme from Pakistan to North Korea. Let's hope it can get it started and get it right.

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