Friday, January 26, 2007

1:50 p.m.

DAVOS, Switzerland — A senior Chinese military officer predicts that weapons will be deployed in outer space despite the government’s long-standing desire to prevent an arms race there.

Yao Yunzhu, a senior colonel in the People’s Liberation Army, brought up China’s recent successful test of an anti-satellite weapon during a World Economic Forum dinner yesterday focusing on North Korea.

“My wish is we really want to keep space as a peaceful place for human beings,” she said, adding that China would like all countries to come to a consensus that space should be used only for peaceful purposes.

“But personally, I’m pessimistic about it,” said Col. Yao, 52, who directs the Asia-Pacific Office at the Academy of Military Science in Beijing. “My prediction: Outer space is going to be weaponized in our lifetime.”

Col. Yao’s remarks were the first comments on the test by a member of the Chinese military. The only other official comment, from the Foreign Ministry, offered the barest confirmation and repeated stock positions about China’s wish to keep space free of weapons.

Yao Yunzhu’s rank of senior colonel is equivalent to that of a brigadier or one-star general in the U.S. military. She belongs to a small group of fluent English speakers the usually secretive People’s Liberation Army uses to deal with foreigners.

The Jan. 11 test sparked criticism from the United States and Japan and raised concerns over the rising militarization of space. Analysts said it also represented an indirect threat to U.S. efforts to remain predominant in space and on the ground because it raised the possibility that the network of U.S. spy satellites could be shot down.

The U.S. military has had the capability to shoot down satellites since the 1980s. Russia has a similar capacity, and China has become the third potential military power in space.

China confirmed the test on Tuesday but did not provide details — and neither did Col. Yao. The magazine Aviation Week, which first reported the test, said the satellite was hit by a kinetic kill vehicle launched from a ballistic missile.

China’s long-standing policy was to ban weapons in space, Col. Yao said, noting that Russia and China presented a draft outline for a treaty to prevent the deployment of weapons in space to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in June 2002.

The United States objected at the time, saying the 1967 Outer Space Treaty provided sufficient guarantees against the weaponization of space. The Russians countered that while the 1967 treaty banned weapons of mass destruction in space, it did not contain any legal barriers to putting other weapons in orbit around the Earth.

Without naming any country, but in an apparent reference to the United States, Col. Yao said that if there’s going to be “a space superpower, it’s not going to be alone, and China is not going to be the only one.”

“It will have company,” she said.

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