London -- Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has spilled the beans: Pakistan does have a nuclear weapons program.
When she was in office, she used to say, without a blush, that no such thing existed. That was during the golden era of American cornucopia, when American military and economic aid poured in for services rendered in the Afghan war, and Washington happily colluded with any fiction Pakistan chose to offer. Now that the Afghan war has lost its Cold War context, the need for Pakistani loyalty no longer presses, and Washington has cut off all aid, belatedly deciding it must punish Pakistan for secretly going nuclear. Pakistan no longer has anything to lose by being honest.
The rest of the world has. Soviet missiles no longer threaten the West, and the U.N. is dismantling the clandestine Iraqi nuclear installations. The one remaining nuclear flash point is south Asia.
We err if we see it only in Pakistani-Indian terms. The still secret Indian drive toward nuclear-weapons capability has never been fueled by its rivalry with Pakistan, but by its fear of China. Their border dispute is bitter and long-standing. India's humiliation in the 1962 border war with China is a wound deeply rooted in the Indian psyche. To this day, many Indians feel that they will never be safe or respected until they can match China, man for man, missile for missile.
China has a nuclear arsenal larger than the combined British and French nuclear forces, and the major Chinese deployment is not aimed at the Soviet Union, but is located on the high plateau of Tibet, on India's northeastern border, within easy range of the Indian heartland. Both China and India have engaged in
TC massive naval build-up in the Indian Ocean and waterways of southeast Asia. Many of China's submarines are nuclear-armed; India's are not.
But India has to be wary about provoking China. It knows it is the inferior party, and has preferred to keep its nuclear-weapons program hidden until it can unveil, in one sweep, what China would consider a credible deterrent.
It probably is not quite ready. India tested an intermediate-range missile in 1989, but these are of limited value against China, where the main industrial, civilian and military targets are more than 2,000 miles away. Eleven years ago India placed a civilian satellite in orbit, showing that it was on the way to mastering the art of long-range ballistic-missile technology. It is only a question of time.
The problem that has long confronted New Delhi is that to go public with its arsenal would push it into a nuclear race with Pakistan. That would work to India's disadvantage; nuclearization would blunt its superiority in conventional forces.
For the present, India's wisest course is to down-play Miss Bhutto's revelations and maintain its policy of refusing to admit it is developing nuclear weapons. As long as Pakistan doesn't actually conduct a nuclear test, the government can face down public opinion.
With Asia on the edge of a three-way nuclear race, the situation cries out for an initiative by the old-time nuclear powers -- the long-overdue, long-promised move to sign and seal a world-wide comprehensive ban on nuclear testing. But would India and Pakistan sign, even if the U.S., the Soviet Union, China, Britain and France did?
Both have always said they would. Even at this late stage India and Pakistan have an interest in not letting a nuclear arms race spin out of control. They have seen by the superpowers' example that such races have a momentum of their own, extraordinarily difficult to check and appallingly expensive. The present policy of ''untested bombs in the basement'' is not without virtues to both sides.
Maybe, however, Pakistan has now pushed India too far. Within a couple of years, we could well see India revealing a full-sized nuclear force, mounted on intercontinental-range rockets. If so, the West, dilatory for so long about a test-ban treaty and a conniver in Pakistan's nuclear development, will have only itself to blame.
Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.