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Archive for Wednesday, January 24, 2007

China confirms test of anti-satellite missile

January 24, 2007

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— China sought to reassure the world Tuesday that its test of a new anti-satellite missile does not signal a "space race," but the announcement did little to ease tensions about an uncertain new phase in China's space program.

Political and military aftershocks from what appears to be any nation's first successful destruction of a satellite in orbit in more than 20 years could affect security ties, technology sales and broader relations with the U.S. and other powers.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao offered the first official comment on the test nearly two weeks after China used a medium-range ballistic missile to destroy one of its aging weather satellites 535 miles above Earth.

"This test was not directed at any country and does not constitute a threat to any country," he said.

Liu said that China briefed the U.S., Japan and other nations and that he had no knowledge of further tests in store.

The shootdown, detected by the U.S. on Jan. 11, drew immediate protests from the U.S., Japan, Britain and other nations that depend on satellites for military and civilian use. A cloud of floating debris left from the strike could interfere with other satellites, scientists warn, and U.S. security officials have expressed concern that the test signals China's capability to use anti-satellite technology to disrupt reconnaissance, navigation and communication operations in the event of a conflict about Taiwan or other issues.

Speaking at a routine media briefing, Liu disputed concerns about strategic competition.

"What needs to be stressed is that China has always advocated the peaceful use of space, opposes the weaponization of space and an arms race in space," he said. "China has never participated and will never participate in any arms race in outer space."

The test has sharpened debate in Washington about China's ongoing military modernization, a buildup that "already puts regional military balances at risk," according to the Pentagon's 2006 assessment of China. Beijing's military budget has experienced double-digit growth in recent years, but remains a fraction of America's half-trillion-dollar defense spending.

China's test forces the U.S. to acknowledge Beijing's rising stature on the global military stage and puts pressure on the U.S. to join the negotiating table. The move could give new ammunition to senior U.S. military leaders who have argued that the U.S. cannot afford to seek more open and substantive exchanges with Chinese military leaders.

"China is the new kid on the block and we have to get used to this, to some extent," said Dali Yang, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago.

But the test also could work to China's disadvantage by emboldening conservatives in Washington who oppose broader military exchanges and sales of technology that could be used for military purposes. Defense analysts who oppose greater technology sales say some semiconductors, routers and precision tools end up in the hands of Chinese defense contractors.

If the U.S. is going to live with a rising China, the signs of a growing military power show no sign of slowing.

"I don't think there is much debate that China wants military parity with the U.S.," said Wenran Jiang, a political scientist at the University of Alberta. "The question is how fast and how will it get there."

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