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Test-Ban Testiness

A treaty to ban the testing of nuclear weapons appeared tantalizingly close last week. A final draft had been readied by negotiators in Geneva. And China, which had long dug in its heels against the treaty, fired off one last device at its Lop Nor test site, as it had said it would, then joined in a voluntary moratorium on further testing. That brought China into line with the other four declared nuclear powers: the United States, Russia, Britain, and France.

The moratoriums are cause for thanks. They represent a clear advance over the years when bomb testing was common and the accumulation of nuclear firepower knew no legal or logical boundaries. But the greater accomplishment would be a binding international treaty. That, sadly, is not as close as hoped.

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China has reopened debate over verification issues, restating its position that the current treaty draft would, as one Chinese diplomat said, countenance "inspectors coming and going like international tourists." The old bugaboo of infringed sovereignty thus reappears.

India, one of three nations (the other two are Israel and Pakistan), considered to have undeclared nuclear capabilities, has another set of objections. It has held right along that the pact ought to include a timetable for actual nuclear disarmament, an admirable long-range goal but a sure show-stopper for the treaty at hand. India's latest quibble, however, is a provision that if any of the eight required signatures (the five nuclear powers plus India, Pakistan, and Israel) aren't gained after three years, the negotiators will reconvene to weigh "measures" to speed up ratification. That, says India, constitutes a threat of sanctions.

Actually, what both the Indian and Chinese positions constitute is a breach of faith with humanity's need to see nuclear weapons brought under control. The test-ban treaty is not a final answer, but it's an important step toward the greater cooperation that could lead to a world less clouded by the threat of nuclear war.

Any arms-limitation treaty rests on trust and a willingness to sacrifice a degree of national autonomy. If a country is abiding by the treaty, what does it have to fear from inspections? All the key nations involved in the talks have spent years scouring the details.

It's time now to seize the opportunity presented by the moratoriums and let the treaty move forward.

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