The US threatened to take military action against China over its space missile tests, according to secret diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
The two nuclear superpowers shot down their own satellites using sophisticated missiles in separate show of strength, the documents obtained by The Daily Telegraph suggest. The American government was so incensed by Chinese actions in space that it privately warned Beijing it would face military action if it did not desist.
However, China carried out further tests as recently as last year, leading to further protests from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, secret documents show. Beijing justified its actions by accusing the Americans of developing an ‘offensive’ laser weapon system that would have the capability of destroying missiles before they left enemy territory.
According to the daily, the ‘Star Wars’ arms race began in January 2007 when China shocked the White House by shooting down one of its weather satellite 848 km above the earth.
In February 2008, the US launched its own ‘test’ strike to destroy a malfunctioning American satellite, which demonstrated to the Chinese it also had the capability to strike in space. The US stated at the time that the strike was not a military test but a necessary mission to remove a faulty spy satellite.
However, the leaked documents appear to show its true intentions.
One month before the strike, the US criticized Beijing for launching its own ‘anti-satellite test’, noting, “The United States has not conducted an anti-satellite test since 1985.” In a formal diplomatic protest, officials working for Condoleezza Rice, the then secretary of state, told Beijing: “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 warning continued: “Any purposeful interference with US 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 United States reserves the right, consistent with the UN Charter and international law, to defend and protect its space systems with a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military.”
A month after the Chinese strike, the US shot down one of its own satellites, ostensibly to stop it returning to earth with a toxic fuel tank which would pose a health hazard. The Chinese did not believe the explanation.
In secret dispatches, US officials indicated that the strike was, in fact, military in nature. Immediately after the US Navy missile destroyed the satellite, the American embassy in China received ‘direct confirmation of the results of the anti-satellite test’ from the US military command in the Pacific, according to a secret memo.
The strike marked the high point of tensions between Washington and Beijing over the issue of ballistic missile defense. The cables show that China was deeply concerned about the US’ plans to place missile defense radars in Japan.
Another document discloses that the US was allegedly developing an ‘airborne laser system’ to counter the threat from ‘Chinese military build up’.
The most recent cable in the collection was sent from the office of Hillary Clinton in January 2010. It claimed that US intelligence detected that China had launched a fresh anti-satellite missile test. Crucially, Washington wanted to keep secret its knowledge that the missile test was linked to China’s previous space strikes.
The cable, marked ‘secret’ said the Chinese army had sent an SC-19 missile that successfully destroyed a CSS-X-11 missile about 240 km above the earth. “This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT (anti-satellite) and ballistic missile defense technologies,” stated the memo to the US embassy in Beijing.