AMERICANS PAY a lot of attention to the nuclear bomb situation in the Asian subcontinent, and it mightily irritates both countries -- Pakistan and India -- under scrutiny. Still, the real question is whether Americans pay enough attention. Only in the subcontinent is there 1) a country, India, that broke its word not to divert its peaceful atomic program to bomb-making and 2) a nuclear power's traditional adversary, Pakistan, that is itself conducting a nuclear weapons program.
The Pakistani program came up in President Zia's visit to Washington. He said he has no intention of building a bomb, and the administration said it takes him at his word. Behind these affirmations lies a fragile bargain: if the Pakistanis refrain from actually producing a weapon, the Americans will provide the conventional arms and the assurances that, they hope, will stop the Pakistanis from taking that final step. It's not an entirely satisfactory policy, but it may help to stabilize a situation given to a very dangerous slide.
As for the Indians, did you hear that clunk from New Delhi the other day? It was the sound of the other shoe falling. The first had fallen in Washington last July when the United States, to be nice to India, released it from its contractual obligation to accept anti-bomb safeguards on its American-supplied reactors at Tarapur as a condition of receiving new shipments of fuel. Specifically, the administration agreed to help India circumvent the requirement in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act that any nation receiving American fuel accept full international safeguards on all its nuclear facilities. The agreed circumvention: to have France sell the fuel.
In New Delhi, French President Mitterrand came calling. Mostly on his mind, it seems, were visions of a diplomatic splash and new orders for French business. He started out asking for safeguards. The Indians resisted. The American view that the original Tarapur agreement requires India to get prior American consent to reprocess spent fuel into bomb-ready plutonium "makes no difference to us," Prime Minister Gandhi had told her parliament. She insists, furthermore, that no safeguards will apply after the 30-year Tarapur agreement expires in 1993. Are you surprised that Mr. Mitterrand was no tougher in November than Ronald Reagan was in July? He caved.
With Pakistan, the United States is taking a hand-holding approach. With India, wrist-slapping may be more appropriate. It is awfully late, but the United States should not remain immobile as the French further abandon the safeguards pass. Certainly it should not ship more fuel to India while India attempts implicit blackmail: ship or we'll reprocess. Perhaps it should buy back fuel already sold so that at least India could not extract plutonium from it. Not to react in some way is to say to the Pakistanis, and others: bombs away