The diplomatic and political row has arisen over Britain's continuing support for France's nuclear testing in the Pacific. As leaders of 50 Commonwealth countries prepare to gather for the opening of the four- day summit in Auckland on Friday, pressure is mounting for Britain to be delivered a stern rebuke.
Many were enraged by Mr Major's declaration to President Chirac last week that the French were justified in going ahead with their latest series of underground nuclear tests. France has exploded three nuclear devices at Muroroa and Fangataufa atolls since early September and plans to detonate at least three more.
Despite a last-minute diplomatic flurry aimed at taking the heat off Britain, officials in Canberra and Wellington insist that the tide of Commonwealth opinion is flowing towards producing a communique strongly condemning France, and China, for continuing to test nuclear weapons. Given that France exploded its latest device at Muroroa only a week ago, apparently regarding the summit with contempt, the pressure to condemn them may be irresistible. But a ringing Commonwealth declaration would leave Britain isolated.
Australian and New Zealand ministers have made it clear that they regard any difficulties Britain may face at the summit as of Mr Major's making.They say he has either failed to understand the strength of opinion against the tests or dismissed it for the sake of closer strategic links with France. Either way, he can expect a stiff reception. Apart from Mr Keating's promise to clip him round the ear "if I can get a shot at him," countries like Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa are also strongly opposed to the tests.
"Britain will be out on a limb in Auckland," one Australian official said. "No one will go out of their way to protect Britain." Others described Mr Major's support for Mr Chirac as "out of touch" and "lacking in sensitivity" when he was about to travel to a gathering of old friends in a country where public feeling against France's nuclear adventures has been universal. Jim Bolger, the New Zealand Prime Minister, will face a backlash at home if he seeks to soft-peddle the nuclear issue so as not to upset the traditional Anglo-New Zealand friendship.
For Australia and New Zealand, the Commonwealth has evolved into just one of several multilateral forums where they seek to promote their foreign policy objectives. The French tests are top of that agenda. A senior Canberra official said: "We have undertaken to pursue our view of the French tests in every international forum. Australia and New Zealand won't be sitting on their hands for the sake of a cosy summit. Mr Major's remarks have hardened attitudes towards Britain's role."
The Queen's attendance, as head of the Commonwealth, is also likely to harden republican debate in Australia. How, ask many Australians, can she act as head of state for countries whose views on the French tests diverge so passionately from official views in her own?
However, on Friday, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is accompanying the Queen, pressed for an inquiry into the environmental impact of the tests. Prince Philip was speaking in his role as head of the World Wide Fund for Nature but, in a clear reference to the Queen's view, he added that "the rest of the family very much supports" the call for an inquiry.
Britain will perhaps be hoping that the other main issue on the summit agenda, Nigeria, will deflectattention from the nuclear row. The leaders face the question of bringing to heel a fellow member, Sani Abacha, Nigeria's military ruler. Member states regard his failure to restore constitutional rule, his detention of 40 people accused of plotting a coup and last week's death sentence on dissident Ken Saro-Wiwa as a defiance of the Commonwealth's 1991 Harare Declaration on democratic governance and human rights.
Even on this issue, Britain may find itself isolated. The UK has tried to resist calls for sanctions against Nigeria because of the damage they would cause toBritish economic interests there.Reuse content