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Report: China may be testing nuclear weapons, US State Dept. says

Vehicles carry DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles during a Chinese military parade. (Voice of America/Released)
April 15, 2020

A new arms-control report from the U.S. State Department raises concerns that the Chinese military has been conducting nuclear weapons tests in violation of an unratified international accord barring all nuclear tests.

The coming report does not present proof that China has violated the “zero-yield” nuclear-weapons testing ban, but it does show patterns of activity that suggest nuclear testing is taking place. An executive summary of the report list notes extensive excavations at China’s Lop Nur test site, suggesting the construction of chambers to contain blasts.

Such observations may suggest the development of nuclear weapons with very low explosive power.

The central issue at the heart of the report concerns the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. While the treaty has not met the criteria for ratification, China and the U.S. have both claimed they are abiding by its terms.

Another concerning trend said to be included in the State Department assessment is an interruption in the flow of radioactive and seismic data collected in monitoring stations in Chinese territory. The monitoring stations are part of an international network to provide data to prove compliance in the nuclear test ban agreement. The stations are to be maintained by the participating nations and have voluntarily shared data with the Vienna-based Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization.

A spokeswoman for the organization told the Wall Street Journal that data transmissions were interrupted amid its deliberations with the Chinese government.

“Data transmission from all certified stations was interrupted in 2018 after the testing and evaluation and certification process was completed,” the spokeswoman said. “In August 2019, ongoing negotiations on post-certification activity contracts with Chinese station operators were concluded and data transmission resumed for all five certified stations.”

In May of 2019 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Robert P. Ashley similarly assessed the Russian government was conducting low-level nuclear tests.

“The United States believes that Russia probably is not adhering to its nuclear testing moratorium in a manner consistent with the ‘zero-yield’ standard,” Ashley said at an arms control forum at the Hudson Institute.

According to the Wall Street Journal, some former arms control officials suspect the new State Department report may be part of an effort by the Trump administration to push Russia and China to negotiate and adopt a new nuclear agreement

Steven Andreasen, who was the top National Security Council official on arms control during the Clinton administration said, “If the United States has concerns that nuclear-yield producing testing has been done by China, we should discuss our concerns with Beijing—and discuss ways to build confidence that such tests are not happening.”

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the non-government Arms Control Association, noted the evidence compiled by the State Department would not constitute proof of low-yield nuclear testing.

The most effective way to resolve concerns about very low-yield nuclear explosions and enforce compliance with the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is for the United States—and China—to ratify the treaty and help bring it into force,” Kimball said. “When it does, states have the option to demand intrusive, short-notice on-site inspections.”