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Ripples in paradise

IT'S one down, one to go, in the Pacific. Australia has just reelected its prime minister, Bob Hawke.

Mr. Hawke is an intriguing man in many respects. He is a tough labor leader who has managed to bring moderation to Australia's highly organized and aggressive unions. He is an intellectual who has eschewed circumlocutory philosophizing for that blunt directness that makes Australians so engaging. He is a no-nonsense supporter of the United States who has managed to convince Australian skeptics that their future in the Pacific is inextricably interwoven with that of the Americans.

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Now we move on to New Zealand's election Aug. 15. While Washington was happy with the outcome in Australia, there are many more frowns about the New Zealand prospect. Prime Minister David Lange's Labour Party is ahead, which has plunged US-New Zealand relations into a prickly period.

Although they are quick to underline their differences from the Australians, New Zealanders are also an easygoing lot, generally fond of Americans and admiring of US technology and pop culture. Although isolated from the rest of the world, they made their commitment in World Wars I and II, and Vietnam, and paid for it with the lives of young New Zealanders. Till recently, New Zealand has been a reliable member of ANZUS, the mutual defense treaty between the US, Australia, and New Zealand.

But when Mr. Lange's Labour Party trounced the opposing National Party in 1984 and Lange took power, things changed. Lange proclaimed support for the alliance but took his party and country down a sharply antinuclear path. That soon provoked a confrontation with the US, whose naval vessels had routinely visited New Zealand.

Lange sent signals to the US that he wanted time to work out the problem of visits by US ships that might be nuclear-powered or carrying nuclear weapons. The US could have sent ships to New Zealand that were not nuclear-powered. Lange wanted to go further, demanding assurances that the ships did not carry nuclear weapons. As a matter of course, the US refuses to declare which of its ships are carrying nuclear weapons. The reason is obvious: You do not declare to your principal enemy, the Soviet Union, which of your ships are nuclear armed.

Lange persisted; the US felt aggrieved. Thus ANZUS was weakened by New Zealand's virtual withdrawal from its activities. The US is being careful to declare that New Zealand is still a friend; it just isn't being treated like an ally.

New Zealand has since voted its antinuclear stance into a law - which would probably be reversed if there were to be a change of government.

Publicly, the US is not meddling in New Zealand politics. But if Lange's party is reelected, there is unlikely to be the same warm reaction in Washington as there was to Hawke's reelection.

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In Washington's view, the Pacific is no longer the tranquil backwater it once might have been. Lange's view that New Zealand can remain aloof from the nuclear world is considered naive.

There has been upheaval in Fiji. The Libyans are stirring up trouble in various Pacific island nations. But most ominous of all is the growing Soviet interest in the Pacific.

Soviet naval power has been projected into the Pacific in a major way in recent years. This has been facilitated by Soviet access to Cam Ranh Bay, the US-developed naval base that fell into communist hands with the fall of South Vietnam.

In a speech in Vladivostok last year, Mikhail Gorbachev stressed the importance of the Far East to the USSR and the Soviets since then have exhibited substantial evidence of their interest.

It is against this background that Washington feels easier about the outcome in Australia and awaits pensively the outcome in New Zealand.

John Hughes will resume his column on July 29.

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