BEIJING - China asked the U.S. on Thursday to release data on the missile hit on an ailing spy satellite, while the Communist Party's newspaper blasted what it called Washington's callous attitude toward the weaponization of space.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the United States is determined to be open about the U.S. operation and told reporters during a visit to Hawaii that "we are prepared to share whatever appropriately we can."
Earlier Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Beijing was asking the U.S. to "provide to the international community necessary information and relevant data in a timely and prompt way."
The overseas edition of People's Daily excoriated Washington for opposing a recent Russian-Chinese proposal on demilitarizing space.
"One cannot but worry for the future of space when a great nation with such a massive advantage in space military technology categorically refuses a measure to prevent the militarization of space," the paper said.
Washington has rejected the Russian-Chinese proposal for a global ban on space arms because it would prohibit an American missile interceptor system in the Czech Republic and Poland, while exempting Chinese and Russian ground-based missiles that can fire into space.
China's official Xinhua News Agency on Thursday reported the satellite's destruction by a missile without comment. A Defense Ministry spokesman, who identified himself only by his surname, Ji, said no statement on the issue would be forthcoming.
China's objections signal its skepticism over whether the satellite hit was truly necessary and its unease over apparent U.S. mastery of a key military technology that Beijing is also pursuing. They also appear aimed at turning the tables on U.S. criticism of Beijing's own shootdown of a defunct Chinese satellite last year.
"The concern is whether the U.S. version of the story is true: Whether that satellite is indeed failing and out of control and if this kind of missile shooting is the best way to remove the threat," said Shen Dingli, an America watcher at Fudan University in Shanghai.
Or, he said, the reasons could be a pretext for an anti-satellite weapons test.
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 shootdown.
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 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.
Beyond propaganda, the potential tie-in to missile defense is a source of real worry to China. Beijing sees those plans as a way of integrating the U.S. defense with regional partners such as Japan, while reducing the threat that China's growing arsenal of medium-range missiles poses to Taiwan, the self-governing U.S. ally that China claims as its own territory.
While some in the Pentagon may believe it is wise to put China on notice about U.S. capabilities, it could serve to further embolden Beijing, said Theresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information, a security policy group in Washington.
"This may give the hard-liners in the PLA (People's Liberation Army) what they need to prevail," she said.
Although no country has ever tried to shoot down another nation's satellite, David E. Mosher, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corp. think tank, said it could be an effective military tactic.
Mosher said satellites are now widely used for communications, missile launch detection and intelligence gathering, and the U.S. has an advantage in such technology.
"The country that has the most to lose if space becomes militarized is the U.S.," he said. "We rely on satellites so heavily, both militarily and commercially ... We don't want to go down that route."