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Leaks Reveal Chinese-U.S. Antisatellite Tensions

(Feb. 3) -The U.S. Navy warshipUSS Lake Erielaunches a Standard Missile 3 interceptor at a nonfunctioning satellite on Feb. 20, 2008. Washington one month before the event berated China for shooting down once of its own satellites the prior year, leaked U.S. diplomatic records indicate (U.S. Navy/Getty Images). (Feb. 3) -The U.S. Navy warshipUSS Lake Erielaunches a Standard Missile 3 interceptor at a nonfunctioning satellite on Feb. 20, 2008. Washington one month before the event berated China for shooting down once of its own satellites the prior year, leaked U.S. diplomatic records indicate (U.S. Navy/Getty Images).

The Bush administration quietly castigated China over its 2007 antisatellite test one month before the United States shot down one of its own orbiters, the London Telegraph yesterday quoted leaked U.S. diplomatic communications as saying (see GSN, Jan. 28).

China eliminated one of its orbiting satellites in January 2007 (see GSN, Jan. 19, 2007); the United States carried out a similar operation the following year (see GSN, Feb. 21, 2008).

“The United States has not conducted an antisatellite test since 1985,” the State Department noted in January 2008. “A Chinese attack on a satellite using a weapon launched by a ballistic missile threatens to destroy space systems that the United States and other nations use for commerce and national security. Destroying satellites endangers people,” the Bush administration said in a formal protest.

“Any purposeful interference with U.S. space systems will be interpreted by the United States as an infringement of its rights and considered an escalation in a crisis or conflict," the document warns. "The United States reserves the right, consistent with the U.N. Charter and international law, to defend and protect its space systems with a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military.”

Washington hinted at military implications of its own antisatellite maneuver, which was conducted ostensibly to prevent the contents of the satellite's fuel tank from causing environmental damage, according to the Telegraph.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing obtained “direct confirmation of the results of the antisatellite test” from the U.S. Pacific Command, according to records obtained by the openness organization Wikileaks.

A U.s. Defense Department spokesman said yesterday, though, that "the United States did not engage our own satellite to test or demonstrate an antisatellite (ASAT) capability. The purpose was to prevent the satellite's hydrazine fuel from causing potential harm to life on the ground."

The U.S. satellite shootdown prompted an "angry" response from Beijing, documents indicate. China's assistant foreign minister in one case suggested the Pentagon's antimissile effort was both “defensive” and “offensive” since “it includes lasers that attack a missile in launch phase over the sovereign territory of the launching country" (see GSN, Jan. 11).

The United States in a January 2010 cable expressed concern about possible antisatellite intentions behind a Chinese test missile interception that month. The test used an SC-19 missile involved in Beijing's 2007 antisatellite demonstration.

“This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT (antisatellite) and ballistic missile defense technologies,” the document states. The Obama administration had the same fears as its predecessor about China's possible military ambitions in space, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Potential future space-based military threats have increasing prompted concerns among Western governments, according to the Telegraph. British Defense Secretary Liam Fox last year warned that an electromagnetic pulse, caused by the detonation of a nuclear weapon near the edge of earth's atmosphere, could knock out crucial electrical systems (see GSN, Sept. 21, 2010; London Telegraph, Feb. 2).

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