China ready to test hydrogen bomb, diplomats say

May 26, 1994|By New York Times News Service

BEIJING -- China is going forward with plans to detonate a hydrogen bomb at its underground test range at Lop Nor, Western diplomats say, and the test could come within days of President Clinton's expected decision to renew China's favorable trade access to the U.S. market.

Communist Party leaders appear to be delaying the explosion for political, not technical reasons. Western diplomats believe that it could come at any time.

The military purpose for this test is not regarded as threatening by Western governments, which see it as a predictable upgrade of China's relatively small strategic nuclear force.

Preparations for the underground test were first reported early this month by Japanese officials. The Chinese have now proceeded to the final stages, and instrumentation to monitor the blast is believed to be in place at the test site in Xinjiang Province.

"They are modernizing their layered force," said a diplomat, who characterized China's strategic nuclear doctrine as being able to return nuclear strikes from Russia, India, or from U.S. military forces based in Japan or Guam.

China also is improving its "symbolic" ability to strike the continental United States with up to 20 warheads.

"Their testing program makes logical sense," another diplomat said. "They are so far behind the other nuclear powers, and they feel they still have a reliability problem."

Mr. Clinton, who is observing a U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing, reacted strongly to China's detonation of a 90-kiloton device last Oct. 5.

China's insistence on carrying out this series of detonations at a time when the other nuclear powers are practicing restraint is complicating Beijing's diplomacy with Washington.

For the Clinton administration, which has signaled that it will soon renew China's low-tariff access to the U.S. market for $30 billion in annual exports, a nuclear test is likely to deflate any harmonious diplomatic outcome.

A former U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Arthur W. Hummell Jr., said Chinese officials, who have made some important gestures on human rights this spring while backsliding in other areas, will time the nuclear test to assert their independence from Washington.

Several Western diplomats suggested that China might still be planning some last-minute concessions on human rights to be followed by the nuclear test.

"Even with the background of military necessity for these tests, I think the Chinese are demonstrating that they cannot be pushed around -- that the United States cannot dictate the course of Chinese actions," Mr. Hummell said.

"If this is not a finger in the eye of the Clinton administration at a very sensitive time," he continued, "then it is a very sharp signal that the United States has no capability to force China to do things."

Douglas Paal, a Chinese specialist on the National Security Council in the Bush administration, said the Chinese have "strategic and tactical considerations" in conducting the current series of tests.

China has indicated that it wants to join negotiations in 1995 for a comprehensive test ban treaty, a convention on trade in nuclear materials and a review conference on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968.

China has conducted fewer than 40 nuclear tests since its first atomic explosion in 1964. The United States has conducted about 1,000 and the Russians about 600.

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