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Bringing China Into Line

January 03, 1986

A controversial U.S.-China agreement on nuclear cooperation, initialed during President Reagan's trip to China in 1984, finally came into force this week. The agreement opens the way for the U.S. nuclear industry to compete with European and Japanese firms for billions of dollars in contracts during the next few years. It should also make the Chinese more sensitive to international concerns over nuclear-weapons proliferation than would have been the case without it.

The agreement encountered strong resistance in the Senate because of reports that China had assisted Pakistan's nuclear-weapons development program, and because the Chinese refused to go beyond generalized language pledging not to help other nations acquire or develop nuclear weapons.

The fact of life is that China itself is already a nuclear power; nothing that the United States does or does not do will change that. It is also a fact that the Japanese and European nuclear suppliers have clearly been willing to take whatever business that U.S. companies had to forgo because of American law. Finally, considering the potential importance of the nuclear agreement to China's energy-development plans, the pact gives Washington leverage on Chinese actions that it would not otherwise have.

It is important, however, that this leverage be used, with special regard to making sure that the Chinese have ended whatever aid they were giving to the Pakistani nuclear-weapons program.

Pakistan has always denied that it is developing nuclear weapons, but these assertions are flatly disbelieved by experts in the field. Considering the enmity between Pakistan and India, which exploded a nuclear device in 1974, there is a dangerous potential for a future India-Pakistan confrontation exploding into nuclear war.

There is particular concern that, as Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program reaches maturity, the Indians might feel compelled to launch a preemptive strike against Pakistani nuclear installations--an eventuality that could have disastrous consequences for world peace generally.

Fortunately, the leaders of Pakistan and India seem to recognize their own stake in heading off such a catastrophe. Two weeks ago Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan met in New Delhi and came up with an encouraging, though limited, meeting of the minds.

They pledged not to attack each other's nuclear installations and to make a major new effort to resolve disagreements not only in the nuclear field but in other areas of contention as well.

The United States has a right to expect China, under these circumstances, to refrain from any form of help to the Pakistanis that could be interpreted as trying to upset the military balance on the Indian subcontinent.

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