BEIJING – China said Thursday it was on the alert for possible harmful fallout from the U.S. shoot down of an ailing spy satellite and urged Washington to promptly release data about the action.
The comment from the Chinese Foreign Ministry came several hours after the Pentagon said a missile launched from a Navy cruiser soared 130 miles above the Pacific Ocean and smashed a dying and potentially dangerous U.S. spy satellite. Two U.S. officials said it apparently achieved the main aim of destroying an onboard tank of toxic fuel.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said China was "continuously following closely the possible harm caused by the U.S. action to outer space security and relevant countries."
"China requests the U.S. to fulfill its international obligations in real earnest and provide to the international community necessary information and relevant data in a timely and prompt way so that relevant countries can take precautions," Liu said at a regularly scheduled news conference.
A spokesman for China's Defense Ministry, who identified himself only by his surname, Ji, said the ministry would not comment on the shoot down.
China's official Xinhua News Agency reported the shoot down without further comment.
However, a commentary Thursday in the overseas edition of the Communist Party's official newspaper, People's Daily, attacked the U.S. for insisting the satellite shoot down was not a military act, while opposing a recent Russian-Chinese proposal on demilitarizing space.
"While the U.S. hedged in its explanations, it wasn't hard for people to hear the subtext: The U.S. will not easily relinquish its military advantage based on space technology and will endeavor to expand and fully utilize this advantage," said the commentary, which made no mention of China's own anti-satellite weapons test.
The Russian-Chinese proposal, issued earlier this month at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, would impose a global ban on space arms, including defensive shields.
Washington has labeled it unfair because it would prohibit an American missile interceptor system from being installed in the Czech Republic and Poland, while exempting Chinese and Russian ground-based missiles that can fire into space.
Since the U.S. announced its plans a week ago, China has sought to turn the tables on U.S. criticism of Beijing's own shoot down of a defunct Chinese satellite last year.
The Chinese objections appear to mark China's skepticism over whether the shoot down was truly necessary and unease over apparent U.S. mastery of a key military technology that Beijing is also pursuing.
Unlike Beijing, which gave no notice before using a missile to pulverize a disabled weather satellite in January 2007, Washington discussed its plans at length and insisted it was not a test.
Subsequent requests by U.S. officials for more information were ignored and none of Beijing's recent statements mentioned China's own satellite shoot down.
China's anti-satellite test was also criticized for being more dangerous. The targeted satellite was located about 500 miles above the earth and the resulting debris threatened communication satellites and other kinds of orbiting space vehicles. Foreign space experts and governments labeled China a space litterbug.
Still, the distinction between the two actions may be lost for many, said Denny Roy, an expert on the Chinese military at the East-West Center in Honolulu.
"What the Americans (have done) greatly undercuts the condemnation heaped on China last year," Roy said. While the circumstances are different, that is "a fine point that is easily overlooked," he said.