by SD Pradhan

A report of Department of State of US indicates that China may have conducted a low yield underground nuclear test at its Lop Nur site. The summary of the report that has been issued on the 14 th April, while the detailed report would be submitted later to the US Congress. The report not only talks of a possible underground nuclear test but also of its proliferation activities and biological warfare capabilities.

It highlights ‘the use of explosive containment chambers, extensive excavation activities and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities’ as the factors for raising the concerns over its non-adherence to zero yield standard. Zero yield refers to a nuclear test in which there is no chain reaction of the type ignited by the detonation of a nuclear warhead. It further says that zero yield standard is adhered to by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France in their respective nuclear weapons testing moratoria.

While there is no concrete evidence for the underground nuclear test, interruptions in data transmission from China’s five sensor stations linked to a monitoring centre operated by the international agency that verifies the compliance with a treaty banning nuclear test explosions from the beginning of 2018 to August 2019 are seen as deliberate attempts to conceal the test and other activities at the Lop Nur site. US President Trump concerned over the Chinese concealed activities pertaining to nuclear tests, had suggested that China should join the US and Russia in talks on arms control agreement to replace 2010 New Start treaty which would expire in February 2021. But that has not happened because of the Chinese reluctance to bind itself with a treaty. Significantly China is among those signatories of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which have not ratified it.

The above report also reveals the continued Chinese proliferation activities. It observes that China has failed to adhere to its November 2000 commitment to the United States not to assist “in any way, any country in the development of ballistic missiles that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons (i.e., missiles capable of delivering a payload of at least 500 kilograms to a distance of at least 300 kilometres).” The report blamed the Chinese entities for continuing to supply items for missile programmes of proliferation concerns. The detention of a ship (Da Cui Yun) on the 3 rd February at the Kangla port bearing a Hong Kong flag and bound for Port Qasim in Karachi for wrongly declaring autoclave as ‘the water purifying machine’ once again had brought the continued Sino-Pak proliferation activities. Autoclave is critical for producing silica sheets under controlled pressure for the solid fuel to be used in the ballistic missiles. Not only the item was wrongly declared but more importantly, the ship belonged to a Chinese company COSCO.

Crucially, the report also observed that China remained engaged in biological activities with potential dual-use applications, some of which raise concerns regarding its compliance with Article I of the BWC during the period under review. This assumes considerable significance in the context of spread of coronavirus from Wuhan. It mentioned that in 2005 it was assessed that ‘China maintained some elements of an offensive BW capability in violation of its BWC obligations.’

The International Community needs to take a serious view of this report. In view of close links of China with Pakistan and North Korea, there is a distinct possibility of data of test being shared with them. Turkey which has plans for nuclear weapons might also benefit from the data. There is also a need for dispassionately assessing the Chinese role and intention in concealing the important information about the coronavirus which has caused the problem world over.