China successfully carried out its first test of an antisatellite weapon last week, signaling its resolve to play a major role in military space activities and bringing expressions of concern from Washington and other capitals, the Bush administration said yesterday.
Only two nations — the Soviet Union and the United States — have previously destroyed spacecraft in antisatellite tests, most recently the United States in the mid-1980s.
Arms control experts called the test, in which the weapon destroyed an aging Chinese weather satellite, a troubling development that could foreshadow an antisatellite arms race. Alternatively, however, some experts speculated that it could precede a diplomatic effort by China to prod the Bush administration into negotiations on a weapons ban.
“This is the first real escalation in the weaponization of space that we’ve seen in 20 years,” said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks rocket launchings and space activity. “It ends a long period of restraint.”
White House officials said the United States and other nations, which they did not identify, had “expressed our concern regarding this action to the Chinese.” Despite its protest, the Bush administration has long resisted a global treaty banning such tests because it says it needs freedom of action in space.
Jianhua Li, a spokesman at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, said that he had heard about the antisatellite story but that he had no statement or information.
At a time when China is modernizing its nuclear weapons, expanding the reach of its navy and sending astronauts into orbit for the first time, the test appears to mark a new sphere of technical and military competition. American officials complained yesterday that China had made no public or private announcements about its test, despite repeated requests by American officials for more openness about its actions.
The weather satellite hit by the weapon had circled the globe at an altitude of roughly 500 miles. In theory, the test means that China can now hit American spy satellites, which orbit closer to Earth. The satellites presumably in range of the Chinese missile include most of the imagery satellites used for basic military reconnaissance, which are essentially the eyes of the American intelligence community for military movements, potential nuclear tests and even some counterterrorism, and commercial satellites.
Experts said the weather satellite’s speeding remnants could pose a threat to other satellites for years or even decades.
In late August, President Bush authorized a new national space policy that ignored calls for a global prohibition on such tests. The policy said the United States would “preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space” and “dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so.” It declared the United States would “deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”
The Chinese test “could be a shot across the bow,” said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a private group in Washington that tracks military programs. “For several years, the Russians and Chinese have been trying to push a treaty to ban space weapons. The concept of exhibiting a hard-power capability to bring somebody to the negotiating table is a classic cold war technique.”
Gary Samore, the director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview: “I think it makes perfect sense for the Chinese to do this both for deterrence and to hedge their bets. It puts pressure on the U.S. to negotiate agreements not to weaponize space.”
Ms. Hitchens and other critics have accused the administration of conducting secret research on advanced antisatellite weapons using lasers, which are considered a far speedier and more powerful way of destroying satellites than the weapons of two decades ago.
The White House statement, issued by the National Security Council, said China’s “development and testing of such weapons is inconsistent with the spirit of cooperation that both countries aspire to in the civil space area.”