As World's Nuclear Fireman, the US Aims at the India-Pakistani Arms Race Rising Tensions over New Missiles Lead to a Proposal from Washington for Peacemaking

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WHILE nuclear tensions tighten on the Korean peninsula, the Clinton administration is quietly trying to stop an arms race now developing in another part of the world: South Asia.

Worried that bitter rivals India and Pakistan are on the verge of major advances in their weapons programs, administration officials have put together a package of arms control initiatives that US diplomats plan to proffer in the region over the next few weeks.

Parts of the package - notably a proposed sale of F-16s to Pakistan - will be controversial in Congress. Strained relations between the US and India pose a further problem.

But the stakes are increasing daily. According to US intelligence reports, both India and Pakistan are working hard on long-range ballistic missiles and both already have the capability to produce nuclear weapons.

"It's not a static situation," notes John Holum, head of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Analysts have long considered South Asia a highly dangerous nuclear flash point. It is the only part of the world where adversaries presumed to have indigenous nuclear arsenals face each other across a tense border. Fighting over the disputed region of Kashmir continues to loom as a possible spark to wider conflict.

It is probably too late to preach the virtues of nuclear nonproliferation on the Indian subcontinent. Rather, US officials appear to be trying to push India and Pakistan in the direction of capping and then managing their nascent nuclear capabilities. Upcoming deployments

Missile development is a particular worry. If married to nuclear warheads, surface-to-surface missiles could become fearsome weapons.

Currently, India is thought to be working on two missile systems: the Prithvi, with a 207 mile range, and the 900-mile Agni. Western nations suspect Pakistan, for its part, may have Chinese M-11 missiles with a 207-mile range, as well as a 50-to-100-mile HATF system.

With deployment of some of these missiles perhaps only months away, Washington is intensifying its involvement in South Asian peacemaking.

Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott will visit the region next month and propose the new US arms-control plan in both the capitals of Islamabad and New Delhi.

As now envisioned by the administration, the plan has a number of separate steps:

* One calls for both India and Pakistan to agree not to deploy surface-to-surface missiles. …