- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

China is preparing to conduct a small, underground nuclear test in the midst of a standoff with the United States over the detention of 24 American military personnel, The Washington Times has learned.
U.S. intelligence officials said the EP-3E surveillance aircraft that collided with a Chinese interceptor jet April 1 was gathering electronic intelligence related to the impending test, along with other intelligence targets.
The test preparations were detected two weeks ago at China's Lop Nur testing facility in western Xinjiang province. They were based on U.S. spy satellite photographs that showed activity related to nuclear testing at one location of the testing site.
One official said the underground blast could be another in a series of "subcritical" nuclear tests small explosions that do not produce an actual nuclear yield but are useful in weapons development and maintenance.
However, other officials familiar with intelligence reports said the Chinese are known to have a covert testing program that relies on small, or low-yield, nuclear explosions.
In 1996, China became a signatory to an international treaty banning all underground nuclear blasts.
U.S. intelligence officials said suspicions about the secret Chinese nuclear testing program were confirmed after agents from Beijing purchased special nuclear containment equipment from Russia several years ago.
The special equipment is known to be used in masking the seismic signatures of nuclear explosions like the small blast China set off June 1999, days before a senior U.S. diplomat delivered an apology to Beijing for the mistaken bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, during the air war there.
The timing of that test, which took place at Lop Nur, was viewed as an intentional signal from Beijing, which had cut off all military contacts with the United States and had begun vitriolic attacks on the United States in the government-controlled media.
Although the test preparations were spotted before the showdown between China and the United States began, officials did not rule out a connection to China's stepped-up aggressive harassment of U.S. intelligence and plans for the test.
China is opposing Bush administration plans for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and plans for deployment of a national missile defense, and it has been engaged in a concerted effort to influence U.S. policies, said defense and intelligence officials.
A test during the current standoff would signal China's growing nuclear power, said the officials.
A U.S. defense official said the testing activity at the current time is a sign that China's leader, President Jiang Zemin, may not be fully in control.
"Some say Jiang is a moderate who wants good relations with the United States," the official said. "If that's the case, this test during a difficult period with the United States indicates he is not in control of China."
The EP-3E conducts signals intelligence operations that are aimed at collecting large amounts of communications and other electric signals. The aircraft left from Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, Japan, and flew south along the Chinese coast until its encounter with two Chinese interceptor jets near Hainan Island.
The aircraft's sensitive listening equipment is capable of picking up communications thousands of miles inland, including any signals from Lop Nur, the main Chinese nuclear testing facility, intelligence officials said.
The U.S. intelligence community also uses RC-135 reconnaissance flights and spy satellites to collect intelligence from Lop Nur. It also has "sniffer" aircraft that can detect any nuclear particles produced from nuclear tests after they take place.
China in the past has used tests of its missiles and nuclear weapons as political signals to the United States.
China is currently engaged in a major strategic weapons buildup. Last year, it conducted two flight tests of a new road-mobile long-range missile known as the DF-31.
China also is building a longer-range missile known as the DF-41 and a new class of ballistic missile submarine that will be equipped with a naval version of the DF-31.
China last conducted large-scale nuclear tests in 1996. It announced later that year it was agreeing to the international nuclear test ban known as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
U.S. intelligence agencies assessed the 1996 tests to be the first blasts of a new small warhead believed based on the design of the W-88, the United States' most advanced small nuclear warhead, obtained through espionage.
Although China signed the test ban treaty, it has not ratified it.
The U.S. Senate rejected the pact in 1999. The State Department said at the time of the Senate debate that U.S. ratification of the treaty would "constrain" China's nuclear weapons modernization because any information on U.S. nuclear testing obtained by Chinese spies could not be used without first conducting nuclear tests.
"China is not likely to rely on weapons incorporating information obtained through espionage without first conducting nuclear explosive tests," the department said in a 1999 fact sheet.
The fact sheet also stated that China said when it signed the test ban treaty in 1996 that "it would continue to evaluate the safety and reliability of its nuclear weapons… . We believe that China has initiated such a program at its Lop Nur test site."
China has refused to permit international monitoring at its nuclear weapons test facilities a key reason Senate Republicans rejected the test ban treaty as unverifiable.
Negotiators failed to include provisions in the treaty that would allow precise monitoring near Lop Nur.
Despite the Senate's rejection of the treaty, the Bush administration is seeking $21 million for international monitoring of the defunct treaty, a sign treaty proponents are operating outside the control of administration political appointees.
"It's the Clinton bureaucracy doing this, and it shows the Bush administration hasn't reined them in," said one U.S. official.
The continued nuclear test efforts by China show "China could never be a reliable treaty partner" since it announced in 1996 that it would no longer test, this official said.

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