China signalled yesterday that its first missile strike against an orbiting satellite was intended to force the US into talks aimed at abolishing weapons in space.

As it faced an international chorus of protest against its test — the first such launch for 20 years — its officials insisted that they wanted space to be free of weapons.

"As the Chinese Government, our principle stand is to promote the peaceful use of space," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. "We oppose the militarisation of space. In the past, in the present and in the future, we are opposed to any arms race in space. Of this everyone can be confident."

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The reassurances failed to placate jittery Asian neighbours and Western powers, which fear that the surprise Chinese muscle-flexing is part of a campaign to raise its global military posture while raising the spectre of a space arms race.

China is the first country since 1985 to destroy a satellite in space and only the third — after America and the former Soviet Union — to master so-called Star Wars technology. The clear message is that if China can shoot down its own orbiter it could also attack satellites operated by other nations.

Beijing has increased defence spending by 10 per cent every year since 1990. Last year spending rose nearly 15 percent to $35.5 billion. Experts believe that the true figure is far higher, in part because the official budget does not include military development costs.

Yesterday Britain and Japan added their voices to the growing criticism, which has included the US, Australia, South Korea and Canada. A Downing Street spokesman said that Britain was concerned about the impact of debris caused by the destruction of the satellite and the secretive manner in which the test had been carried out. A formal protest was made this week to the Chinese by the British Embassy in Beijing.

Alexander Downer, the Australian Foreign Minister, said that China's new-found capacity to shoot down satellites was "not consistent with ... the traditional Chinese position of opposition to the militarisation of outer space".

Washington's response will be crucial in determining what happens next: an arms race in space or an agreement to limit the use of Star Wars technology. American analysts said that the test had exposed the "soft underbelly" of America's national security apparatus, because most of the Pentagon's spy satellites orbit at a similar height to the weather satellite destroyed by the Chinese test.

White House critics said that the Chinese test was a result of President Bush's aggressive unilateralism, this time in his space policy. Last year the U.S. expressly ignored Chinese and Russian calls for a global ban on the development of space weapons. Instead, a new policy preserved America's right to develop military space technology, while "dissuading" others.

Edward Markey, a Democrat congressman, said that President Bush should initiate an international agreement "to ban the development, testing and deployment of space weapons and anti-satellite systems".

But Jeffrey Kueter, president of the George C. Marshall Institute, said that the Chinese move should spur the Bush Administration to develop new space defence systems.

"We now know for certain that China has the direct capability to destroy satellites in space and the indirect capability to deny their use," he said.

Chinese analysts said that they doubted the action would damage China's relations with the US. Shi Yinhong, of the School of International Studies, said: "Every big power, if it wants to maintain its status as a big power, will get into the field of space."

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