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The most pressing nuclear proliferation problem of the 1990s may not be, as is widely assumed, that more states will acquire nuclear weapons. It may turn out that nuclear weapons will acquire more states.

The end of the Cold War does not necessarily mean the world is safer. In the 45 years of the nuclear age, no nuclear state has seriously faced an internal political and military breakup. Today, that possibility threatens China and the Soviet Union. Because both have large nuclear arsenals, we are all endangered.

Although 94 percent of China's population is Han Chinese, nuclear weapons, including intermediate-range missiles, are stationed in areas populated by non-Hans. If Hans were to become embroiled in civil conflict, it would present an opportunity for rebellion against Han domination by these minorities. They might seize control of nuclear weapons and demand Han withdrawal.

The risk of nuclear weapons becoming involved in internal conflict is even greater in the Soviet Union. There are nuclear weapons in most of the 15 republics; each tank rifle division has a nuclear-rocket battalion. In contrast to China, where virtually all soldiers in nuclear units are Han, there are significant numbers of non-Russians in Soviet nuclear units -- especially Balts, Ukrainians and Byelorussians.

Parts of both the military and the territories of the Soviet Union and China could separate themselves, taking nuclear weapons with them. Newly independent countries could thus emerge as nuclear powers at birth.

Another proliferation hazard is the possibility that, owing to chaos, lax security or even commercial transactions, nuclear weapons might end up in the hands of third countries and terrorists. To cite a worst-case example, a Shiite Moslem Azerbaijan might hand nuclear warheads to Iran.

Today, the Chinese and Soviet armies are under political strain. So far, they have generally maintained their discipline and loyalty. In the Chinese Army, the strains are great but are confined to politics. In the Soviet Army, the strains are political, religious and national.

Unlike the situation in the United States, it is believed that the Chinese and Soviet military have few mechanical safeguards to prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons. In the early 1960s, security forces in China and the Soviet Union had control and oversight functions in nuclear production, storage and military units.

In both countries, fighting might break out between security forces and the regular military, as happened in Romania last December. In such chaotic circumstances, who would control the nuclear warheads?

One can only hope that the Soviets and the Chinese are removing nuclear weapons from troubled minority nationality areas. Evacuating them sooner rather than later could be done inconspicuously, producing less political fallout. In a crisis, moving nuclear weapons would be difficult and dangerous, and would reveal the seriousness of the situation to rebels and the world.

Since nuclear weapons in the Chinese region of Xinjiang and in Soviet Central Asia are aimed at each other, a prudent first step would be mutual withdrawal -- ideally in secret.

HARLAN W. JENCKS is a research associate at the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California at Berkeley.

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