China in its perverse way has given President Clinton an opportunity to put real meaning in his promise to weave the goal of nuclear non-proliferation "into the fabric of all our relationships with the world's nations." He can do so by refusing to follow suit just because China (with France possibly to follow) has broken a year-long worldwide moratorium on nuclear testing.
Beijing's action was deplorable, but it need not undermine negotiations in Geneva next January for a permanent and comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. Nor should it impede renewal in 1995 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, arguably the most important agreement in the whole saga of arms control. But the United States -- and only the United States -- has to set the right example.
How the acknowledged members of the nuclear club -- the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France -- manage their weapons of mass destruction is being closely watched in a world where a growing number of nations are acquiring the capability to wreak havoc on their neighbors and enemies. China and France can cause complications through their nationalistic pretensions. But only the United States and perhaps Russia have the means to provoke or prevent a renewal of the arms race in a more dangerous post-Cold War setting.
In the face of Chinese bloody-mindedness, Mr. Clinton has wisely kept his options open. He has ordered the Department of Energy to prepare for tests advocated by the Pentagon, but strong opposition in Congress to testing should strengthen what we hope is his inclination to stick with the moratorium. Troubling as the new Chinese tests may be, they do not in themselves threaten vital U.S. security. What they do threaten is the whole nuclear arms control process, and Mr. Clinton's most effective response would be to protect that process by all diplomatic means available.
In his speech at the United Nations Sept 27, the president not only stressed his high priority on non-proliferation but called for new measures to stop the growth of stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium and to limit trafficking in ballistic missiles. On both these counts, China has acted irresponsibly. But tit-for-tat testing by the U.S. would not dissuade Beijing's leadership from its present course. And it could embolden Russia's military establishment to demand a return to nuclear buildup now that it has come to the rescue of President Boris N. Yeltsin.
In the abstract, there is always a case to be made for testing to modernize nuclear weapons and make them more secure and less prone to accident. But the United States has already conducted 942 tests, as compared to only 38 by China, and at some point an American president has to find the gumption to say, "Enough." The larger goal must be to turn the world away from a path that could lead to nuclear terrorism and holocaust.