China's atomic test threatens ban: US and other nuclear powers reconsider their moratorium on carrying out explosions

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton has ordered preparations for a possible resumption of underground nuclear testing next year in a direct response to a test completed by China early yesterday in defiance of international calls for a moratorium. Other nuclear powers are reconsidering their positions after the first nuclear explosion anywhere in the world for just over a year.

Confirming the test, Peking said China's 'development and possession of a small number of nuclear weapons is completely for its self-defence'. China would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, it added.

Only three months ago, Mr Clinton suspended the US nuclear testing programme for 15 months while work continues on negotiating a permanent worldwide moratorium on all such detonations, to take effect from 1996. Britain, France and Russia simultaneously pledged to abide by the suspension, but Paris and Moscow have indicated that they might resume testing if others did so.

Washington has been pleading with Peking for several weeks to desist from any testing. Relations with China are already strained following allegations that it is selling nuclear weapons technology abroad, undermining efforts to curb nuclear proliferation.

At the same time, the Clinton administration has put China on notice that its trading privileges with the US will be withdrawn next year if it fails to demonstrate an improvement in its human rights record. A hastily prepared White House statement yesterday said: 'The United States deeply regrets this action. We urge China to refrain from further nuclear tests and to join the other nuclear powers in a global moratorium.'

President Clinton stopped short of saying US tests would resume, asking only that the energy and defence departments should make preparations for the possibility of fresh tests next year. Money for such detonations has been preserved in the US budget and the testing sites beneath the Nevada desert - also used by Britain - have been maintained in operational condition.

The White House said the decision on whether to authorise new tests would depend on national considerations and the attitude taken by China and other nuclear nations. Any decision to rescind the 15-month freeze would, however, need the approval of Congress, which has increasingly voiced opposition to further testing.

The timing of China's test is likely to set back recent US attempts to ease friction between the two countries. Last week it was announced that President Clinton would meet Jiang Zemin, China's President and Communist Party chief, next month in what was seen as a possible bridge- building exercise. Sino-American relations have been badly bruised by the US sanctions in retaliation for alleged weapons technology shipments to Peking, and mistaken allegations that a Chinese container ship was taking proscribed chemicals to Iran. China was also incensed by a motion in Congress that Peking should not get the 2000 Olympics because of human rights abuses.

Russia yesterday expressed 'deep regret' over China's test, saying it would hamper talks on a complete test ban. A spokesman said President Boris Yeltsin would take the reaction of the other nuclear powers into account. The French government, however, refused to comment, reflecting deep divisions over the unilateral freeze on testing announced by President Francois Mitterrand in April 1992. The military and scientific establishments are pressing for a resumption, but politicians are wary of the issue, 15 months before the next presidential election.

The Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, said yesterday that Britain was consulting the United States over the next move. Mr Clinton's order to prepare for a possible resumption of testing was 'very reasonable'.

Leading article, letters, page 23