BIRMINGHAM, England — After failing to win international backing for tough punitive measures against New Delhi in the wake of India's nuclear tests last week, the United States on Saturday dangled the prospect of significant rewards for Pakistan if it refrains from testing atomic weapons of its own.
But in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, crushing disappointment that the world's eight most-powerful leaders had offered nothing more than a verbal condemnation of India seemed to heighten prospects that Pakistan soon will try to match the nuclear prowess of its regional adversary.
Pakistani Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad said the light treatment accorded India by the Group of 8 leaders meeting here in Britain made it imperative that his nation act on its own to safeguard its security.
He stopped short of declaring that Pakistan will detonate a nuclear device but made it clear that there were few other options.
"We cannot act with madness as the Indians have," Ahmad said. "But Pakistan's security has been directly threatened. It will respond in a manner consistent with the magnitude of the threat that faces us."
His comments, coupled with the general mood in Islamabad, generated a sense of fading hope that a regional nuclear arms race can be avoided.
Here in Birmingham, where President Clinton and the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia have gathered for the G-8 summit, U.S. officials struggled to avoid just that, hinting that Pakistan has much to gain if it refrains from conducting a nuclear test.
"If they make that decision [not to test] . . . I think that they will capture the high ground in the long-standing regional struggle in South Asia," National Security Advisor Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger told a news conference as the G-8 leaders concentrated on longer-term global challenges. The leaders on Friday condemned India's decision to conduct nuclear tests; but facing opposition mainly from Russia and France, they could not reach a common position on punitive sanctions.
"I think the [Pakistanis'] relationships with many governments will change," Berger added. "I suspect the attitude in our own Congress, which has been quite restrictive with respect to Pakistan, would then free up our capacity to cooperate with them more fully."
Although Berger's comments were held out as a potential reward to Islamabad for not testing, they constituted more of a sketchy vision of the possible than any definite U.S. commitment.
Clinton used his weekly radio address to reiterate his criticism of India, saying its nuclear testing has threatened "to spark a dangerous nuclear arms race in Asia."
The U.S. package of stiff economic sanctions against India, together with Clinton's rhetoric, the dispatch of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott to Pakistan on Wednesday and Berger's statement, were all seen as part of a larger U.S. effort to prevent other countries from following in India's footsteps.
Berger hinted strongly that such a shift of sentiment might resolve a long-standing dispute surrounding Pakistan's purchase of 28 high-performance F-16 military aircraft. Although Pakistan has paid more than $650 million for the planes it ordered eight years ago, the U.S. has refused to deliver them because of sanctions imposed on Islamabad for refusing to halt efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
The U.S. also has kept the money, a situation that Berger admitted "has resulted in what seems to be an unfairness."
Berger would not specify if this would mean that the U.S. would deliver the planes, stating only that the two countries would resolve "the plane issue in a way that is satisfactory to Pakistan and the United States."
Regional specialists believe that it is more likely that the U.S. would return the money than deliver new military strike planes into a region where tensions are high and the nightmare scenario of a regional nuclear war is a step closer. These specialists, however, believe that Berger and other administration officials dealing with the issue were being deliberately ambiguous about how the dispute might be resolved in order not to dash Pakistani hopes of getting the aircraft.
"I would have to believe--and based on some conversations I've had with senators in the last few days--that if Pakistan were not to test, that we would have a far greater chance to make inroads on [lifting or easing sanctions] in Congress, in a bipartisan way, than we have had before," Berger said. "And I think it would be a welcomed development."
White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said Berger's statement about the F-16s reflectedconversations that the national security advisor has had with members of Congress in recent days and the assessments of White House liaisons who have been canvassing Congress on the issue.
But Berger was not sure that this would be enough to prevent Pakistan from testing a weapon.