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WikiLeaks Reveals Sino-American Tensions Over Satellite Knockdowns as U.S. Mulls Pact

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
February 3, 2011
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Here’s some hair-raising news on the space weapons/debris front:

The United States threatened to take military action against China during a secret “star wars” arms race within the past few years, according to leaked documents obtained by The Daily Telegraph.

The two nuclear superpowers both shot down their own satellites using sophisticated missiles in separate show of strength, the files 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.

The Chinese carried out further tests as recently as last year, however, leading to further protests from Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, 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.


China destroyed an aging weather satellite in 2007, creating thousands of pieces of dangerous space debris and angering much of the world. The United States shot down a failing satellite with a Navy missile the following year, saying that the vehicle’s full fuel tank could survive re-entry and spread contamination over its crash site.  The shoot down did not create significant space debris because the debris quickly re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere.

The leaked cables, obtained by WikiLeaks, indicate that the United States has been pushing for talks on these matters:

In order to enhance transparency between our countries on BMD issues, the United States reiterates its desire to conduct a bilateral dialogue on strategic security issues to better understand the plans and intentions of each other.

In related news, The Washington Times reported last week that the Obama Administration is negotiating with the European Union on an agreement to limit the use of anti-satellite weapons:

Three congressional staffers told The Washington Times that Pentagon and intelligence analysts said in a briefing Monday that the administration is looking to sign on to the European Union‘s Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.

The briefing followed the completion of an interagency review that recommends the United States sign on to the document with only a few minor changes to its language, according to two administration officials familiar with the review….

A draft of the code of conduct dated Sept. 27 says countries that sign on to the document vow to “refrain from any action which intends to bring about, directly or indirectly, damage or destruction of outer space objects unless such action is conducted to reduce the creation of outer space debris and/or is justified by the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense in accordance with the United Nations Charter or imperative safety considerations.”

Skeptics of the move say the agreement could limit U.S. strategic options in space and on missile defense:

“There are capabilities that we have in space and that we want to have in space,” the staffer said. “We want to make sure our ability to conduct space situation awareness and to pursue those capabilities are not hindered by the code of conduct.”

Another congressional staff member said: “There is a suspicion that this is a slippery slope to arms control for space-based weapons, anti-satellite weapons and a back door to potentially limiting missile defense.”

The agreement is being reviewed by the National Security Council, which must give its final approval. Whether the agreement can be signed by the White House on  its own or constitutes a treaty obligation that would need Senate approval is a matter of dispute.