Is China rebuilding its old base for nuclear tests? Should India be concerned?

Is China rebuilding its old base for nuclear tests? Should India be concerned?

Is China rebuilding its old base for nuclear tests? Should India be concerned?

China has reportedly resumed activities at its old nuclear test base located in a remote western desert. The Asian giant had detonated its first atomic bomb at the Lop Nur testing site in Xinjiang Province in 1964.

Now, satellite images published in a New York Times (NYT) report have revealed construction activity at the military base in the barren Xinjiang region. Analysts fear China may be preparing to conduct new nuclear tests. However, Beijing has refuted the claims.

Let’s take a closer look.

China ‘rebuilding’ nuclear test base

The satellite images of Lop Nur by Maxar Technologies show a deep vertical shaft recently bored by a drilling rig. As per the NYT report, the shaft could go down at least a third of a mile (1760 feet approximately).

As many as 30 buildings have been built or revamped at the main support base for the Lop Nur nuclear test base since 2017, the report added.

A view of Lop Nur in China’s Xinjiang region. Wikimedia Commons File Photo

The giant airbase in the area has also been upgraded, while multiple deep vertical shafts have also cropped up. There are indications of recent “excavation and construction” in at least one of the horizontal tunnels drilled into the side of the mountains for past nuclear weapons testing, according to the American newspaper.

There are also new roads, power lines, and an electrical substation at the Lop Nur test base, Renny Babiarz, an expert on satellite reconnaissance, told NYT.

Dr Babiarz, a former Pentagon analyst, has uncovered and examined the new imagery.

What is China’s intention?

The revamp and expansion at Lop Nur signals China may be preparing to conduct full-scale nuclear tests or subcritical experiments, experts say.

These subcritical tests, which are allowed under the global test ban treaty, are lesser experiments that do not result in a nuclear explosion.

Beijing has not conducted full-fledged nuclear tests since the 1990s when the world’s nuclear powers agreed to a voluntary moratorium on testing.

However, nuclear experts do not believe China is planning to carry out a nuclear test anytime soon. Its actions could depend on its rivals, especially the United States, though.

Tong Zhao, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told NYT, “All the evidence points to China making preparations that would let it resume nuclear tests”.

The expert added that Beijing believes it “needs to prepare for the worst-case scenario.”

Beijing has, however, called the claims about Lop Nur “utterly irresponsible.” China’s foreign ministry told NYT in a statement that its report was “clutching at shadows, groundlessly whipping up a ‘China nuclear threat.’”

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China’s expanding nuclear arsenal

The United States claimed in October that China has sharply expanded its nuclear stockpile over the past year.

An annual report by the Pentagon also said China was aiming to ramp up its arsenal to over 1,000 warheads by 2030. This is still far behind Russia and the US’ arsenals, with the former having about 5,889 warheads and latter possessing 5,244 warheads, BBC reported citing the independent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The Pentagon report also noted Beijing was committed to a “no-first-strike” nuclear policy

Earlier this year, another report traced China’s growing nuclear arsenal.

A July report from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey stated, “The current expansion of China’s missile forces suggests a possible departure from China’s previously restrained second-strike nuclear posture to a posture capable of deterring at multiple levels of conflict and an increased shift towards nuclear warfighting.”

According to the report, China had nearly 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles a little 10 years back. Now, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force – a strategic branch of the Chinese military – is “on track to deploy more than 1,000 ballistic missile launchers by 2028”.

Should India, US worry?

NYT‘s report is concerning for India which has had tense relations with China over the past years.

India, which has a much small stockpile than China, had announced a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing after the 1998 Pokhran tests. According to NDTV, “any Chinese effort at reactivating its Lop Nur range is bound to have a profound impact on regional security.”

Ties between the US and China have also worsened. As NYT mentioned, “The activity at Lop Nor comes at one of the most sensitive moments in US-China relations. (American) President (Joe) Biden has said he’s trying to ‘stabilise’ an increasingly contentious relationship”.

On Thursday (21 December), top US and China military officials held a virtual meeting for the first time in over a year with the hopes to restore ties between the two militaries. Beijing had severed military ties with the US after then-House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited self-ruled Taiwan last August.

With inputs from agencies