Pacific fury at UK silence

SOUTH PACIFIC countries led by Australia and New Zealand are preparing to roast Britain at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting over its refusal to oppose French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

A week after France exploded a second nuclear bomb, ministers in Canberra and Wellington predict that Britain's unwillingness to support the overwhelming tide of regional opinion against the tests will leave it isolated when Commonwealth leaders gather in New Zealand early next month.

Australia and New Zealand are insisting that the Commonwealth meeting end with a resounding declaration against more tests. Paul Keating, Australian Prime Minister, and Jim Bolger, his New Zealand counterpart, will tell John Major in Auckland that Britain must support the declaration or dissociate itself from it.

When the Queen tours New Zealand as head of the Commonwealth next month she is likely to face public protests over a policy which Britain implicitly supports and New Zealand, Australia and other Commonwealth countries vehemently oppose. The bizarre nature of the Queen's role as head of state for countries which take such a different view from Britain has reignited debate in Australia about becoming a republic.

Britain's refusal to condemn the two French tests since early September, saying they are "a matter for the French government", has irritated Australian officials, who describe the British stand as "puzzling", "disappointing", "obdurate" and "pusillanimous". One of Mr Keating's most senior cabinet ministers, Bob McMullan, minister for trade and acting foreign minister, said: "If you compare Britain on this issue with a majority of European Union members, let alone its traditional friends and associates in the Pacific region, on any stand of principle it should be speaking up. I don't expect it to be as strong an issue for Britain as for us. But Britain has been stony in its silence."

Mr McMullan said he was disappointed with Britain's response because Britain and Australia shared a core of values he thought would have been reflected in the British government's attitude. "With all Britain's democratic traditions and its recognition of the proper role of nation states in modern society, one would not expect it to be so sympathetic and quiescent in the face of this extraordinary behaviour by France," he said. "A wide cross-section of Commonwealth countries, particularly those of the Pacific, hold strong views against the testing and will want to see those reflected at the coming New Zealand meeting."

He expected the gulf over Britain's stand on a question that has aroused such widespread public indignation in Australia to hasten the process leading towards Australia becoming a republic. This was because of the "anomalous" position which that gulf had created for the Queen. "No one wants to embarrass the Queen and no one will," said Mr McMullan. "But it's an anomalous situation and, I think, reinforces the view that our links with the monarchy, while fondly remembered, are increasingly anachronistic. The problem is the duality of the role the Queen has to pursue. It illustrates that borrowing our head of state makes no sense any more in the last part of the 20th century."

Gordon Bilney, Australia's minister for Pacific Island affairs, led a delegation of MPs from Canberra last month to lobby European countries to oppose the tests. "In all but three of the countries we visited - Britain, Germany and France - our interlocutors were very receptive," he said. "I do think Britain could well have made a different judgment of its overall interests in such a way that it would not be quite so ostensibly in support of the French position."

What the row has exposed for old Commonwealth members such as Australia and New Zealand is that Britain is prepared to put its membership of the EU and the nuclear club well ahead of the Commonwealth. Mr Girard, the French ambassador, made the point with brutal frankness on Friday: "In their relations with the Australians, the British have been very normal in their reaction, considering they belong to the same group as we do."

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who waged battles with Margaret Thatcher over her campaign to stop the Commonwealth imposing sanctions against South Africa in the 1980s, said the Commonwealth's division with Britain over testing is shaping up to be even more of a crisis than that over apartheid.

"People's patience has gone," he said. "There has been enough of a reaction around the world against France to make it an impediment against any nuclear testing or using these weapons at any time. Britain has taken the predictable, low-key role that the Foreign Office recommended. For a long time, Britain doesn't seem to have regarded the Commonwealth as important. It has failed to see what an active and constructive Commonwealth policy could do for Britain. It has been so preoccupied with its ambivalent and two-sided policy towards Europe, its Commonwealth policy is beyond British bureaucracy and leadership."

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