The test preparations were detected two weeks ago at China's Lop Nur testing facility in western Xinjiang province, the newspaper said. They were based on U.S. spy satellite photographs that showed activity related to nuclear testing at one location of the testing site.
A U.S. defense official said the testing activity at the current time is a sign that China's leader, President Jiang Zemin, may not be fully in control.
"Some say Jiang is a moderate who wants good relations with the United States," the official said. "If that's the case, this test during a difficult period with the United States indicates he is not in control of China."
One official said the underground blast could be another in a series of "subcritical" nuclear tests – small explosions that do not produce an actual nuclear yield but are useful in weapons development and maintenance.
However, other officials familiar with intelligence reports said the Chinese are known to have a covert testing program that relies on small, or low-yield, nuclear explosions.
Although the test preparations were spotted before the showdown between China and the United States began, officials did not rule out a connection between China's stepped-up aggressive harassment of U.S. intelligence and plans for the test.
China is opposing Bush administration plans for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and plans for deployment of a national missile defense, and it has been engaged in a concerted effort to influence U.S. policies, said defense and intelligence officials.
A test during the current standoff would signal China's growing nuclear power, officials told the Times.
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