A new theory has surfaced in Washington yesterday about the purpose of the US surveillance flight and why the Chinese were so sensitive about it. Citing unidentified "intelligence sources", the conservative Washington Times reported that the US plane was gathering electronic data relating to an impending underground nuclear test that China was believed to be preparing.
The report, by the paper's well-connected investigative reporter, Bill Gertz, said that the US had detected possible test preparations two weeks before at the Lop Nur test range in China's western Xinjiang province. A small "subcritical" test without any nuclear yield would not violate any treaties, but the paper pointed out that such tests could be used to mask a test that would violate the international ban on underground testing.
China signed the test ban treaty in 1996, but has not ratified it; the US Senate rejected ratification of the same treaty in 1999. The newspaper noted that China detonated a small explosion in June 1999, just days before the US delivered its formal apology to Beijing for the bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade during Nato's intervention in Kosovo.
The timing of that test was widely seen as a deliberate signal from Beijing, reinforcing the war of words it had launched shortly after the bombing.
This time, test preparations could be interpreted as signalling China's opposition to Taiwan's request to buy new weapons from the US. The request is due to be considered by President Bush in coming weeks. Any move to accelerate the test now could also be used to send a diplomatic warning in the new tension over the downed Chinese plane and the crew of the US spy plane who are still being held in China.
One of the main functions of the EP-3 surveillance plane is to collect electronic data. Its sophisticated listening equipment is believed to be capable of detecting communications thousands of miles inland, including from Lop Nur, even when flying in international air space off the Chinese coast.
According to US intelligence officials, suspicions about the secret Chinese nuclear testing programme were confirmed after agents from Beijing purchased special nuclear containment equipment from Russia several years ago.
It also emerged yesterday that the US spy plane was forced to land by the Chinese fighter after requests to shoot it down were rejected by ground control.Reuse content