TOKYO, Jan 20 (AFP) Jan 21, 2007
China's apparently successful destruction of a satellite in space shows its determination to be a global power and is set to leave lasting jitters in the United States and Asia, analysts say.
The weapons test, which was not confirmed by China, would be the world's first since 1985 when Cold War superpowers Washington and Moscow agreed to suspend "Star Wars" maneuvers that blow up satellites.
The United States relies on spy satellites for intelligence, including about China's expanding military, and had refused previous calls for a permanent ban on such tests in space.
The test, which was reported by US officials, would show that spy satellites "are now potentially vulnerable to Chinese destruction," said Lance Gatling, an aerospace consultant based in Tokyo.
"Without announcing it, they are making a clear statement that they intend to pursue such a program at their convenience and they're willing to take some significant heat to do so," he said.
"If you think of the Beijing Olympics and trade talks and everything that's coming up, it's not unprovocative."
The United States led criticism of the test, which also triggered concern in Japan and India, Asia's two other main space powers, which have often had tense relations with China.
But Zhu Feng, director of the international security program at Peking University, said the apparent test was a natural part of China's growing profile and called the international criticism an overreaction.
"Beijing now is rising so it's also natural, I think, for Beijing to try to make some of the economic achievements spill over to the military," he said.
China is "still very much weaker than the US and Russia in such military capabilities, so it's kind of a strategy of catch-up where it would not like to be lagging so far behind," he said.
"We are also a power, we also have very big, legitimate concerns in the security field. So you cannot say, 'Okay, Beijing is a rising power (but) Beijing has no right to advance when it's security is concerned.'"
The Chinese government has not directly commented on the reported test but said that its space program is not a threat.
The United States, however, has voiced concern not only over the political implications of the test but also about debris hitting satellites or the manned International Space Station.
Gatling estimated that debris from the destroyed Chinese weather satellite was travelling at some 17,000 miles an hour (27,000 kilometers an hour) and would stay in space for three to five years.
He said Japan, European nations and possibly India had the know-how to carry out similar tests, which he described at a technical level as the "outer space equivalent of a car bomb."
"It raises the stakes in what some people see as a kind of inevitable progress toward a militarization of space. This has been a threshold that most countries are not willing to talk about," he said.
Japan has launched spy satellites since 2003, aimed in part at monitoring communist neighbor North Korea, and last year moved to ease its own restrictions on the military use of space.
Yasunori Matogawa, a professor of space engineering at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, part of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, predicted more calls in Tokyo to develop its own capabilities.
"The test was shocking more in the symbolic sense than in the actual damage of the space debris," he said.
"The test didn't come at the best time for Japan. It may fuel the argument that Japan should develop space technology for national defense, especially as it came in the midst of the North Korean nuclear crisis."
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