China may have conducted a secret low-level underground nuclear test in violation of the international agreement, a new report by the United States has claimed. The findings first published by the Wall Street Journal may further strain US-China relations that have worsened after the Covid-19 outbreak.
The new US State Department report on compliance with arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament, accuses China of failing to adhere to non-proliferation commitments and claims that China conducted zero-yield blast at its Lop Nur nuclear test site throughout 2019.
Zero-yield refers to a nuclear test in which there is no explosive chain reaction of the type ignited by the detonation of a nuclear warhead. “China’s possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round, its use of explosive containment chambers, extensive excavation activities at Lop Nur and a lack of transparency on its testing activities raise concerns to its adherence to a zero-yield standard,” the report said.
Although, the report has raised some red flags regarding China’s compliance with the international agreement and mentioned some violations it did not conclusively prove any wrongdoing on the part of the Chinese government.
Another factor that warranted United States concern is due to the interruptions caused in data transmission from monitoring stations on Chinese territory that detect emissions and seismic activities.
Nations who have signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996 are responsible for the operation of the stations that are part of an elaborate international network of hundreds of sites that have been set up to ensure adherence to the test ban treaty.
Countries that have inked the 1996 agreement are responsible for running the stations and for voluntary transmission of data to Vienna based organization that oversees compliance as the international accord is yet to come into effect.
However, a spokeswoman for the Vienna based organization denied any interruption in transmission of data from the Chinese monitoring stations since 2019. The spokeswoman said that data transmission was interrupted in 2018 because of the negotiations between CTBT and the Chinese Government on the arrangements for operationalizing the stations.
She said that data transmission from all certified stations was obstructed in 2018 after the testing and evaluation and certification process was completed. She added that Chinese transmission resumed post-2019 when negotiations on Chinese stations concluded.
The 1996 treaty allows for a host of activities for warranting the safety of nuclear weapons, including tests comprising fissile material as long as they don’t produce a nuclear-explosive yield.
Russia, France, and Britain have signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which still requires ratification by 44 countries to become international law. China and the United States are among eight signatories that have not ratified it.
But China has declared its adherence to its terms, while the United States has observed a unilateral testing moratorium since 1992. A senior US official said that the report has once again highlighted the need for China to join the United States and Russia in talks on an arms control accord to replace the 2010 New START which restricts both the US and Russia from deploying not more than 1,550 nuclear warheads and limit the land- and submarine-based missiles and bombers that deliver them.
Experts have pointed out that the Lop Nur isn’t proof of any Chinese wrongdoing and the most effective way to resolve concerns about low-yield nuclear explosions is to get China and the US to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
However, China has rubbished all such allegations. According to reports, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “China has always performed its international obligations and commitments in a responsible manner, firmly upheld multilateralism and actively carried out international cooperation.
The US accusation against China is made out of thin air, which is totally unfounded and worth refuting.” Zhao also pointed to US withdrawal from Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty for discounting US accusations.
Zhao also said that the US was not qualified to be a judge or referee in this matter as it was maintaining an arsenal of biochemical weapons and was increasingly bolstering its armed forces in a dangerous manner that threatened international stability and peace.