China wins transparency praise with missile test

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BEIJING (AP) — China’s decision to go public just hours after this week’s missile test shows the government has learned from calls to be more upfront and get its military, political leadership and diplomats on the same page.

Beijing hasn’t described Monday’s test, other than to say that it was conducted within the country’s airspace and employed homegrown technologies.

Despite that, the simple act of publicly announcing the firing of the missile interceptor has enabled Beijing to successfully avoid the hail of international criticism it endured after its January 2007 downing of a defunct weather satellite.

In that earlier case, Beijing only confirmed the test days later — after news of it was leaked by U.S. officials. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen were initially kept in the dark about it, while President Hu Jintao and other top leaders not fully informed of the likely repercussions, especially over the massive cloud of dangerous space debris that resulted from the satellite’s pulverization.

In contrast, this time around, the official Xinhua News Agency reported the test Monday evening in a brief statement that was repeated the next day by Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu at a regularly scheduled news conference.

Along with describing the test as purely defensive in nature, Jiang said no space debris had been produced that could in any way threaten satellites.

“In institutional terms, this shows the capacity of the Chinese system to learn from previous mistakes and improve bureaucratic coordination, which has been a persistent weakness,” said Philip Saunders, a senior research fellow at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies.

Saunders said the new approach was based on the fact that China could not keep such a test secret, even though it was conducted over Chinese territory.

“China knew that the test intercept would be observable by other countries, and that if there was no announcement, China would be criticized for excessive secrecy,” he said.

Missile intercepts require advanced technology such as satellite sensors and guidance systems that can place a surface-to-air missile on course to smash into and destroy an incoming weapon.

All countries surround their intercept programs in secrecy, although China is known to have purchased a large number of Russian surface-to-air missiles during the 1990s and has since pressed ahead with its own HQ-9 interceptor, along with a more advanced missile system with an extended range.

Such interceptors would be of relatively little use against U.S. cruise missiles, although they could be effective against ballistic missiles deployed by Russia or India, China’s massive neighbor to the south with which it has a growing military rivalry and lingering territorial disputes.

U.S. officials said they were not informed of the test before hand, but had observed the launch of two separate missiles and a collision outside the atmosphere.

Other analysts, however, said U.S. officials had been monitoring preparations for the test at least as far back as September.

U.S. Defense Department officials will be taking the Chinese missile intercept and anti-satellite tests into review as they draft the administration’s Space Posture Review that will clarify American national security space policy and strategy for the near term, said Gregory Kulacki, senior analyst and China project manager for the Global Security Program under the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The test will drive home the importance of talking to China about missile defense and (anti-satellite) technologies before China completes the development of these interceptors and moves towards deployment,” Kulacki said.