Leading Article: China's gesture of defiance

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CHINA'S conduct not infrequently recalls the chant of Millwall football club fans: 'We are Millwall, no one likes us, we don't care.' The country's leadership will have been fully aware that yesterday's nuclear bomb test, the first by any country since last year's informal moratorium by the four other original nuclear powers, would do its reputation no good. It pressed ahead defiantly, having no doubt decided that the International Olympic Committee's rejection of Peking for the millennial Games had removed the last restraint.

That the explosion virtually coincided with the dramatic events in Moscow was clearly a matter of chance: preparations for such a test take more than a few days. Its timing could, however, strengthen any arguments the Russian military establishment cared to advance for a resumption of its own testing - just when President Boris Yeltsin is indebted to the army for its support. The Russian military's own reactions may depend on whether China proceeds with further tests.

There can be no intended link, either, with today's important speech by Chris Patten, the governor of Hong Kong, to the colony's Legislative Council. Mr Patten must explain how he intends to square his own plans for electoral reform with China's refusal to approve them in the ongoing negotiations with Britain. China's diplomatic obduracy is of a piece with its nuclear test, and with its no less defiant export of arms to several of the world's least savoury regimes. As the post-Deng Xiaoping era looms, those positioning themselves for power see no dividends in flexibility or accommodation with the West. They are not prepared to be pushed around, especially by the US, whose agents recently angered Peking by searching a Chinese merchant ship allegedly bearing potentially lethal 'precursor' chemicals to Iran.

The most dangerous medium-term effect of China's breach of the de facto moratorium will be to jeopardise the chances of achieving a comprehensive test ban, for which a target date of 1996 has been set and which Peking yesterday appeared ready eventually to join. Much will depend on whether the Russians, French, Americans and British use the Chinese explosion to justify resumption of their own test programmes.

China's defiance may also damage prospects for renewing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1995. The treaty seeks to prevent non-nuclear-weapon states from acquiring them, while allowing the original five nuclear powers to keep them. Tests to improve nuclear weapons by the big five nuclear powers emphasise the element of hypocrisy underlying the treaty.

Above all, the big bang in Xinjiang emphasises China's maverick quality, and the dangers it poses to a region in which a virtual security vacuum prevails. The alarming fact is that no one has the faintest clue what the post-Deng era will bring. The West will have to use all its diplomatic skills to persuade this volatile, dynamic and potentially very dangerous power that its interests lie in peaceful co-operation with the international community.