Asia's Nuclear Nightmare

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Now the fallout begins. One day after India’s triple nuke test shook the world, a "deeply disturbed" President Clinton has signalled his intention to invoke the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention act of 1994 -- meaning no more loans, credit or military aid for New Delhi. With Japan, India's largest creditor, set to pull the plug on its own its $1billion aid program, the question is begged: What on earth was Indian premier Atal Bihari Vajpayee thinking?

According to TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell, he had bi-polar politics in mind. "India wants to assert itself as an alternative power to China," says Dowell. And reports of Beijing's hand in Pakistan's recent missile tests was, for Vajpayee, the last straw.

Not that he will have ignored the political benefits. Already, the tests have united a fractious 19-party coalition government and silenced talk of an early election. But the opening of this particular Pandora's box has Asia watchers worrying about the future: "Although India won't challenge China militarily," says Dowell, "the real fear in Washington is of political instability in these countries." And a nuclear standoff, as most Americans remember, is no fun.