China called on the U.S. to release data on the shooting down of an ailing spy satellite, while the Communist Party's newspaper blasted what it called Washington's callous attitude toward the militarization of space.
China registered its objections well before the satellite's destruction by a missile launched from a Navy cruiser on Wednesday, which likely accounted for the mild response Thursday from the Foreign Ministry.
"China is continuously following closely the possible harm caused by the U.S. action to outer space security and relevant countries," spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a regularly scheduled news conference.
"China requests the U.S. ... provide to the international community necessary information and relevant data in a timely and prompt way," Liu said.
In contrast, 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 downing without comment, while 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 downing was truly necessary and 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 shooting down 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.
The reasons could be a pretext for an anti-satellite weapons test, he said.
China and Russia are not alone in their skepticism: A range of Western experts say the satellite appeared to present a target of opportunity for the U.S. military to road test new technology, while also eliminating the chance of any sensitive technology hitting the ground intact. Many said the satellite, even with its tank full of hazardous fuel, posed little real danger to those on the ground.
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 shooting down of its satellite.
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 ballistic missiles poses to Taiwan, the self-governing U.S. ally that China claims as its own territory, to be recovered by force if need be.
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, D.C.
"This may give the hard-liners in the PLA (People's Liberation Army) what they need to prevail," she said.