Though for the past two months global headlines have been consumed by non-stop coronavirus developments, since the weekend there's been a sudden uptick in significant geopolitical events signalling tensions are rising in relation to various countries' responses to the pandemic, including sanctions and tit-for-tat issues of blame, notably between China and the US, as well as involving Iran and Russia.
To review, the past days alone have witnessed North Korean cruise missile launches, an Iranian intercept of a Hong Kong-flagged tanker, US-Russia aerial intercept incidents, a US 'show of force' at its Guam air force base, Washington attempting to block an IMF loan to Iran, and Iranian fast boats harassing US warships in the gulf, among other things.
But in what could mark the biggest alarming new event if confirmed, the United States has accused China of conducting banned nuclear tests.
The charge, sure to send already worsening tensions soaring, originated with a US State Department report made public by The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
But considering the seriousness of the accusation, which a number of pundits have remarked should warrant a high evidentiary standard, the language of the US claim is couched in multiple qualifications leaving confirmation anything but certain.
According to the WSJ:
China may have secretly set off low-level underground nuclear test explosions despite claiming to observe an international pact banning such blasts, the US State Department said in a report on Wednesday that could fuel US-Chinese tensions.
This is not the case with the US, however, which is now accusing China of maybe violating the ban, and which is offering no evidence at all.
The treaty in question is The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) which bans all nuclear reactions conduced by explosives.
Would China have violated the ban it's most likely that global monitoring installations would have detected the activity, which critics say weaken Washington's new claims.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian blasted the claims as "groundless" and ultimately "not worth refuting".
"China has always adopted a responsible attitude, earnestly fulfilling the international obligations and promises it has assumed," he said. "The US criticism of China is entirely groundless, without foundation, and not worth refuting," he added.
The WSJ summarizes the State Dept.'s admittedly circumstantial evidence as follows: "The concerns stem from the high tempo of activity at China’s Lop Nur test site, extensive excavations at the site, and Beijing’s purported use of special chambers to contain explosions."
The charges appear to hinge on Beijing's essentially beefing up its ability to 'hide' the tests deep underground.
"Another factor feeding U.S. suspicions is the interruption in past years of data transmissions from monitoring stations on Chinese territory that are designed to detect radioactive emissions and seismic tremors," the report continues.
It should be recalled too that as recent as in 2019, the US similarly accused Russia of “probably” violating the CTBT. Thus it's easy to view this not as a substantive intelligence finding, but more as a political charge part of the Trump administration's arsenal of leverage to be used to pressure Beijing.