FOR most Americans the South Pacific conjures up visions of a tropical paradise of swaying palms, unsullied beaches, and hospitable islanders. Sadly, because of an ill-considered decision by the Reagan administration not to subscribe to a treaty creating a nuclear-free zone in the region, the image of the United States held by the peoples of the South Pacific is not nearly so benign. The genesis of this situation goes back to last December, when the Treaty of Rarotonga, creating a South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, went into effect. The treaty's signatories - 13 island nations in the region, including Australia and New Zealand - promised not to acquire, test, or station nuclear weapons within their territories. The treaty also contains restrictions on the disposal of nuclear wastes and codifies safeguards for the transport of nuclear materials.
The US and the world's other nuclear weapons countries, though not signatories to the treaty, have been invited to sign three treaty protocols or appendixes. These protocols would obligate these powers to refrain from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against treaty signatories, from undermining the treaty, and from testing nuclear devices within the nuclear-free zone.
Unhappily, the Reagan administration has responded to this invitation by belittling the treaty and refusing to sign the protocols. This, in turn, has become a source of deep consternation among our friends and allies in the South Pacific. Australia, for example, worked with great success during the negotiations leading to the treaty to ensure that the pact would not interfere with current US activities, such as the transit of nuclear-powered or -armed warships, or otherwise infringe upon US interests.