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Wikileaks Hints at U.S. and China Space Weapon Showdown

Documents released today show that anti-satellite tests may have been a show of military strength.
February 3, 2011

The Wikileaks website has obtained diplomatic cables, which have been released to the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, that suggest that anti-satellite tests conducted by China in 2007 and by the United States in 2008 were not merely “tests” but showcases of each country’s space weapon or military powers. This is not entirely surprising, but the documents put in writing the some of the realpolitik involved with two competing super powers, i.e. my weapons are bigger and better than yours.

The Chinese intentionally shot down an aging weather satellite 530 miles above Earth in January 2007, which resulted in thousands of pieces of debris, exponentially compounding the space debris problem. The strike down garnered criticism from nations around the world, including the United States. Then in February 2008 the United States shot down a malfunctioning American spy satellite, a task it claimed it had to conduct because the satellite was carrying toxic fuel that could pose health concerns.

According to the Telegraph,

One month before the strike, the US criticised 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.”

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 most recent cable in the collection was sent from the office of Mrs 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 150 miles above the Earth.

The leaked cables are interesting, but lack the muster to confirm the Telegraph’s claim of “a secret ‘star wars’ arms race” between China and the U.S. (Given the diplomatic climate at the time, one might expect the U.S. embassy in China to be informed of the American satellite’s destruction regardless of whether or not an ulterior agenda was playing out.) More to the point, the cables bring to life dangerous tensions between two powerful nations and continue the Wikileaks saga–that is of secrets and transparency, and how one begins to make sense of it all.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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