China fires provocative space salvo

BEIJING -- China's apparent success in destroying one of its own orbiting satellites with a ballistic missile signals that its rising military intends to contest American supremacy in space, a realm many here consider increasingly crucial to nati...

BEIJING -- China's apparent success in destroying one of its own orbiting satellites with a ballistic missile signals that its rising military intends to contest American supremacy in space, a realm many here consider increasingly crucial to national security.

The test of an anti-satellite weapon, which Beijing declined to confirm or deny Friday despite widespread news coverage and diplomatic inquiries, was perceived by East Asia experts as China's most provocative military action since it test-fired missiles off the coast of Taiwan more than a decade ago. Unlike the Taiwan exercise, the main target this time was the United States, the sole superpower in space.

With lengthy white papers, energetic diplomacy and generous aid policies, Chinese officials have taken pains in recent years to present their country as a new kind of global power that, unlike the United States, had only good will toward other nations.

But some analysts say the test shows that the reality is more complex. China has surging national wealth, legitimate security concerns and an opaque military bureaucracy that may belie the government's promise of a "peaceful rise."

"This is the other face of China, the hard-power side that they usually keep well-hidden," said Chong-Pin Lin, an expert on China's military who lives in Taiwan. "They talk more about peace and diplomacy, but the push to develop lethal, high-tech capabilities has not slowed at all."


Japan, South Korea and Australia are among the countries in the region that pressed China to explain the test, which if confirmed would make it the third power, after the United States and the Soviet Union, to shoot down an object in space.

China's Foreign and Defense ministries declined to comment on reports of the test, which were based on U.S. intelligence. Liu Jianchao, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, would say only that China opposed using weapons in space. "China will not participate in any kind of arms race in outer space," he told Reuters.

The silence on the test underscores how much China's rapidly modernizing military -- perhaps especially the 2nd Artillery forces, in charge of its ballistic missile program -- remains isolated and secretive, answering only to President Hu Jintao, who heads the military as well as the ruling Communist Party.


Having a weapon that can disable or destroy satellites is considered a component of China's unofficial doctrine of asymmetrical warfare. China's army strategists have written that the military intends to use relatively inexpensive but highly disruptive technologies to impede the better-equipped and better-trained American forces in the event of an armed conflict -- over Taiwan, for example.

The Pentagon makes extensive use of satellites for military communications, intelligence and missile guidance, and some Chinese experts have argued that damaging its space-based satellite infrastructure could hobble American forces.

Yet while China's research and development of such weapons has been well-known, the apparent decision to test-fire an anti-satellite weapon came as a surprise to many analysts.

"If this is fully corroborated, it is a very significant event that is likely to recast relations between the United States and China," said Allan Behm, a former official in Australia's Defense Ministry. "This was a very sophisticated thing to do, and the willingness to do it means that we're seeing a different level of threat."


China's military expenditures have been growing at nearly a double-digit pace, even after adjusting for inflation, for 15 years. China has begun to deploy sophisticated submarines, aircraft and anti-ship missiles that the Pentagon says could have offensive uses.

Yet with a few notable exceptions, Beijing has avoided sharp provocations that could prompt the United States or Japan to focus more on what some officials in both countries regard as a potential China threat.

Beijing has denied that it intends to develop space weapons and sharply criticized the United States for experimenting with a space-based missile defense system. It forged a coalition of Asian countries to jointly develop peaceful space-based technologies.

Some of such talk amounts to little more than propaganda. But Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., says the Chinese military does in fact act cautiously when it comes to improving its strategic capabilities, like long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, to avoid triggering alarm in the United States.

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