Is China Resuming Nuclear Testing? – Analysis


By Kartik Bommakanti

With reports emerging that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is preparing to conduct a series of nuclear tests at its Lop Nur nuclear test facility in the Xinjiang Region, there are grave implications which are likely to follow not just for the world, but above all—India. The recent revelation establishes that the PRC is moving in the direction of accumulating an arsenal that is qualitatively better in terms of size, lethality, and effectiveness.

Assessing the causal factors behind Beijing’s decision to prepare the Lop Nur nuclear test site is vital to understanding the consequences of Beijing’s decision, if and when it happens, to proceed with a renewed round of testing. It is at a minimum an unmistakable signal of Beijing’s intent to overturn the moratorium that the PRC announced in 1996. The Chinese have since the mid-1990s worked to advance the Research and Development (R&D) of new warhead designs that require testing.

The activity witnessed over the last few weeks in Lop Nur is very likely to test new warhead designs and involves the Chinese digging a vertical shaft deep inside the Earth’s surface estimated to be roughly one-third of a mile. The Chinese nuclear test site at Lop Nur, which goes by the nomenclature Malan, consists of a maze of buildings and technical infrastructure over a two square mile radius with roughly 30 odd buildings undergoing renovation since 2017. In this freshly constructed area, the deep vertical shafts will allow for a significantly greater number of tests than the horizontal shafts built in the past for testing. Although the Russians and Americans routinely conduct some form of limited activity in their nuclear test ranges, it is nothing like what is underway at Lop Nur in terms of scale. It effectively confirms that the PRC is preparing itself to resume testing at short notice, once clearance is given by the Xi Jinping-led Central Military Commission (CMC).

Why resume testing when China has already conducted 45 nuclear tests, notwithstanding Beijing’s vehement denials that it is on the cusp of testing again? The last Chinese nuclear test was conducted in 1996 and existing designs, even if they were at one point tested, the data derived from them are inadequate to meet the requirement of warhead miniaturisation, lightness, higher yield and reliability. As China has developed and introduced a new generation of missiles, the warhead configuration for the missiles too requires a high level of optimisation or interface with their delivery vehicles along the metrics stated above. The United States (US) and the Russian Federation (including its predecessor—the Soviet Union) conducted 1,030 and 715 atomic tests respectively, creating a wealth of test data for the modernisation and upkeep of their nuclear stockpiles. Beijing, in contrast, has conducted fewer tests compared to its adversaries in Washington D.C. and Moscow. Unsurprisingly, the PRC’s strategic managers led by Xi Jinping appear committed to reviving the prospect of atomic test explosions.

India faces hard choices

New Delhi faces hard choices or trade-offs if China goes ahead with nuclear testing following a hiatus of nearly 27 years. The PRC already has a significant head start over New Delhi in terms of atomic test data, rendering its arsenal at least qualitatively superior to India’s arsenal. The resumption of Chinese atomic tests will only compound India’s nuclear challenges. India’s primary challenge lies in possessing a reasonably reliable arsenal that can perform using airbreathing platforms, missiles, and subsurface platforms.

Additionally, living with an expansion in China’s nuclear arsenal comes at a price for India, especially if New Delhi desists from acquiring a larger arsenal in response to China’s quantitative and qualitative atomic expansion because of it leading to an “arms race instability”. A second, yet no less consequential and compounding factor for India is China’s pursuit of damage limitation capabilities such as missile defences that neutralise India’s smaller arsenal.

Chinese missile defence capabilities such as the MQ-19 missile interceptors are capable of mid-course interception of India’s Agni-III Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM). Apart from Ground-Based Missile Defence (GBMD) capabilities, Beijing also possesses long-range conventional and nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile capabilities, which India lacks. A third compounding factor making the Chinese nuclear challenge graver for India is a potential shift in China’s “No First Use” (NFU) policy to First Use (FU), which could make matters worse for India in that it could lead to the complete decapitation of India’s smaller nuclear-tipped missile forces.

If New Delhi does not resume nuclear testing in the event China proceeds with a resumption of atomic explosive tests, it must be prepared to live with a qualitatively inferior arsenal from the standpoint of reliability and performance at least at the high-yield end of nuclear weapons as well an arsenal that is dwarfed by the PRC and distributed across a wider range of platforms and delivery systems including, menacingly, hypersonic missiles, by its more militarily-advanced neighbour.

New Delhi, at best, could just respond by increasing the number of warheads in its existing stockpile, settling for the simple fission devices it has already developed and tested. Beyond this option, it is imperative that New Delhi invest strongly in three sets of delivery systems and platforms—hypersonic missiles, long-range air-launched cruise missiles, and more nuclear ballistic missile submarines, than it has currently, with extended-range missiles. Catalysing the completion and integration of all these three sets of capabilities, which are at varying stages of development, should assume great priority for India in the event of the Chinese restarting nuclear testing.

Alternatively, India could respond with its own nuclear tests by breaking from the moratorium, which New Delhi announced following the 1998 nuclear tests. If India’s decision-makers resume nuclear tests in response to the PRC’s atomic tests, they will need to be prepared for the sanctions-related consequences that follow and in the event that India does test, it must be prepared to conduct several tests spanning many months to ensure that any new designs developed since the last round of tests, especially of the thermonuclear device, which failed in 1998, work efficiently. All the test data derived will help India miniaturise warheads that are lighter, compact, and reliable with some being of high yield. Following the completion of these tests, India can sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and even ratify it, if sanctions are lifted.

Regardless of the trade-offs, New Delhi cannot sit idly. The choices facing India are not easy and all involve costs and risks. Yet the pathway India pursues to augment its military strength in the nuclear and missile domains must be geared to tackling the military threat the PRC poses, not just to India but equally to the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

  • About the author: Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation
  • Source: This article was published by the Observer Research Foundation

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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