Chinese transporter bearing hypersonic DF-17 missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons

TOKYO: China is expanding its nuclear test facilities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an analysis of satellite photographs obtained by Nikkei suggests.

Beijing halted explosive tests in the area a quarter of a century ago. Nikkei has viewed satellite photographs with a number of experts that appear to confirm China is strengthening its nuclear testing capability.

Extensive coverings have been erected on a mountainside in this arid region, and broken rocks piled up nearby are believed to be evidence of excavation of a new “sixth tunnel” for testing hidden beneath.

Power transmission cables and a facility that could be used for storing high explosives have recently been installed, while unpaved white roads lead from a command post in various directions.

The evidence of new construction was detected by a satellite 450km above Lop Nur, a dried up salt lake in the southeast of Western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Many analysts believe that the secret nuclear testing area is secured by the People’s Liberation Army.

“China could conduct nuclear-related tests anytime, especially since the electricity line and road system now connects Lop Nor’s western military nuclear test facilities to new possible test areas in the east,” an expert at AllSource Analysis, a US private geospatial company, told Nikkei. The researcher spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

China aims to become a military power on a par with the US by the middle of the 21st century — a formidable ambition given the underdeveloped state of some of its forces and materiel.

China has 2.04 million military personnel. Although that is already the largest standing force in the world — and 1.5 times larger than that of the US — it has been unable to recruit enough troops of late, according to one retired military officer. This is a combination of the old “one-child policy” and a preference among the younger generation for less physically demanding work in the private sector.

President Xi Jinping said the Chinese Communist Party rules “east, west, north, south,” and that means it controls the PLA. But China’s military system remains corrupt and nepotistic. The PLA is also untested; its last real combat experience was the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979.

The Xi administration may be contemplating the unification of China, and that would involve taking Taiwan by force. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided a sobering warning about the risks of military adventures, not least for the serious shortcomings in the quality of Russian military equipment. Russia supplies China with over 66% of its imported military hardware.

The issue is where nuclear weapons might fit into all these calculations. China has conducted five underground nuclear tests at Lop Nur, the last in 1996. Evidence that a sixth tunnel has been excavated points to a planned resumption.

There is also some telling evidence to be found in tenders invited from the region. In April, an official Chinese procurement website invited bids for “10 radiation dose alarms,” “12 protective suits,” and “one detector of wound site taints.” This was ostensibly part of “a project for emergency monitoring of nuclear and radiation accidents.” The invitations were issued by the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary organisation under the CCP.

Although there are no nuclear power plants in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the XPCC said that it will “make 2022 the starting year for strengthening the capacity to monitor radioactivity.” Procurement of related equipment has increased in the region.

Satellites detected new terrain levelling activity at Lop Nur in October 2020. Big trucks came and went in 2021, and the power infrastructure for the sixth tunnel was built in the first half of 2022. In June, the explosive storage facility was completed.

Increased radiation was detected in the vicinity alongside these developments. A new underground facility that could be used to launch nuclear missiles was found nearby.

Time is not on Xi’s side. He is manoeuvring for a third term that will end in 2027. “Possibly [he] wants to discourage US intervention in the Taiwan Strait by threatening to use small nuclear weapons,” Nobumasa Akiyama, a professor at Hitotsubashi University who studies East Asian security, told Nikkei.

If there is an emergency in the Taiwan Strait, maritime control will of course be the key issue. Small nuclear weapons with limited strike capabilities could enable China to hold US aircraft carriers at bay.

Russia has threatened the use of small nuclear weapons on airports and underpopulated areas in Ukraine. The US has so far had no direct involvement in the war there, and some analysts have argued that the possible use of nuclear firepower has made it even more wary of any entanglement. China is certainly aware of this line of thinking.

China’s nuclear arsenal has aged since the last tests were conducted, and new data is needed for the latest generation of nuclear weapons before their deployment.

Analysis in mid-July of other satellite intelligence meanwhile appears to show US activity at its U1a Complex in the Nevada National Security Site.

The Nevada work is thought to have started in September 2021, and construction at two locations there has nearly doubled the site. “The U1a Complex Enhancements Project will help underwrite future annual assessments and modernisation programs and will ensure confidence in the reliability of the nuclear stockpile without a return to nuclear testing,” said Tyler Patterson, a spokesperson for the site.

Although President Joe Biden has advocated a “nuclear-free world,” the US conducted subcritical nuclear tests without reaching a critical mass in June and September 2021. By holding more than a quarter of the world’s nuclear warheads, the US continues to compete head-on with China and Russia on nuclear weapons.

Blocks on the use of nuclear weapons may be coming down as the US and China continue developing smaller devices alongside Russia’s nuclear sabre rattling in Ukraine.

“[A conflagration in the Taiwan Strait increases] the risk of China using small nuclear weapons and the US countering with them,” said Michiru Nishida, a professor at Nagasaki University.

In a report in June, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warned that the risk of nuclear weapons being used is at its highest level since the Cold War in the second half of the 20th century.

The Chinese Embassy in Washington, DC declined to comment on the matter.