Concern grows over China's satellite-killing missile test

BEIJING (Reuters) - Beijing insisted Friday it was opposed to an arms race in space after Japan and Britain joined a chorus of concern over a satellite-killing missile test by China -- the first known experiment of its type in more than 20 years.

Liu Jianchao, director-general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Information Department, answers a question during the Reuters China Century Summit in Beijing September 6, 2006. Beijing insisted on Friday it was opposed to an arms race in space after Japan and Britain joined a chorus of concern over a satellite-killing missile test by China -- the first known experiment of its type in more than 20 years. REUTERS/Claro Cortes IV

The United States says China used a ground-based ballistic missile to shoot apart an aging weather satellite on January 11, scattering debris that could damage other satellites and raising risks of escalating military rivalry in outer space.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman declined to confirm or deny the incident, but said Beijing wanted no arms race in space.

“I can’t say anything about the reports. I really don’t know; I’ve only seen the foreign reports,” Liu Jianchao told Reuters.

“What I can say is that, as a matter of principle, China advocates the peaceful use of space and opposes the weaponisation of space, and also opposes any form of arms race,” he said.

U.S. concerns were quickly echoed by Australia and Canada, and then Friday by Japan, which has become increasingly concerned about its giant neighbor’s rising military strength.

“We are concerned about it firstly from the point of view of peaceful use of space and secondly from the safety perspective,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuhisa Shiozaki told a news conference.

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Tokyo is trying to mend fences broken by disputes with China over their wartime history, competition for resources and regional influence. But it has also sought more transparency from Beijing on its defense spending, which China announced last March would rise by 14.7 percent rise to $35.3 billion.

Britain added its voice to the alarm over China’s reported move, with Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman telling reporters “we have concerns about the impact of debris in space and we’ve expressed that concern.”

The last U.S. anti-satellite test took place in 1985. Washington then halted such Cold War-era testing, concerned debris could harm civilian and military satellite operations.

The State Department said Undersecretary of State Robert Joseph had summoned the Chinese ambassador to Washington on Tuesday to seek information about the test.

“Is this one of these things where they have done it for whatever reasons and we are not going to see it happen again? Is this the beginning of a much longer program? Is this ... part of a particular military effort of some kind or is it part of just some other scientific program? There’s a lot of questions that are out there,” said a U.S. official who asked not to be named, saying China had yet to provide answers.

Blair’s spokesman said Britain did not believe the China’s test had contravened international law, but it was concerned by the lack of consultation. The test was “inconsistent with the spirit of China’s statement to the U.N. and other bodies on the military use of space,” he said.


Tokyo has asked the Chinese government for confirmation that the satellite-killing missile test took place and for an explanation of what China’s intentions were, Shiozaki said.

“When we passed on the message, the Chinese side said they would take Japan’s concerns into account and that they want to maintain the peaceful use of space,” a Japanese foreign ministry official said.

According to David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the satellite pulverized by China could have broken into nearly 40,000 fragments from 1 cm to 10 cm -- or up to 4 inches -- roughly half of which would stay in orbit for more than a decade.

The United States has been researching satellite-killers of its own, experimenting with lasers on the ground that could disable, disrupt and destroy spacecraft.

Additional reporting by Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo, Katherine Baldwin in London, Lindsay Beck in Beijing and Arshad Mohammed in Washington