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.
The disclosures are contained in the latest documents obtained by the Wikileaks website, which have been released to The Telegraph. They detail the private fears of both superpowers as they sought mastery of the new military frontier.
The “star wars” arms race was began in January 2007 when China shocked the White House by shooting down one of its weather satellite 530 miles above the Earth.
The strike, which resulted in thousands of pieces of debris orbiting the earth, raised fears that the Chinese had the power to cause chaos by destroying US military and civilian satellites.
In February 2008, America launched its own “test” strike to destroy a malfunctioning American satellite, which demonstrated to the Chinese it also had the capability to strike in space.
America stated at the time that the strike was not a military test but a necessary mission to remove a faulty spy satellite.
The leaked documents appear to show its true intentions.
One month before the strike, the US criticised Beijing for launching its own “anti-satellite test”, noting: “The United States has not conducted an anti-satellite test since 1985.” In a formal diplomatic protest, officials working for Condoleezza Rice, the then secretary of state, told Beijing: “A Chinese attack on a satellite using a weapon launched by a ballistic missile threatens to destroy space systems that the United States and other nations use for commerce and national security. Destroying satellites endangers people.”
The warning continued: “Any purposeful interference with US space systems will be interpreted by the United States as an infringement of its rights and considered an escalation in a crisis or conflict.
“The United States reserves the right, consistent with the UN Charter and international law, to defend and protect its space systems with a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military.”
The Chinese strike in 2007 was highly controversial, prompting criticism from other nations and claims that it marked a revival of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” programme, that was abandoned in the 1980s.
A month after the Chinese strike, America shot down one of its own satellites, ostensibly to stop it returning to earth with a toxic fuel tank which would pose a health hazard. The Chinese did not believe the explanation.
In secret dispatches, US officials indicated that the strike was, in fact, military in nature.
Immediately after the US Navy missile destroyed the satellite, the American Embassy in China received “direct confirmation of the results of the anti-satellite test” from the US military command in the Pacific, according to a secret memo.
The strike marked the high point of tensions between Washington and Beijing over the issue of ballistic missile defence. The cables show that China was deeply concerned about America’s plans to place missile defence radars in Japan.
Another document discloses that the US was allegedly developing an “airborne laser system” to counter the threat from “Chinese military build up”.
The Chinese government was said to be “angry” about the US satellite exercise in February 2008.
For months after the US strike, the two countries engaged in tense talks over the issue.
At a summit on defence in June 2008, the American delegation told the Chinese that Washington did not regard China as “an enemy”. China replied that it saw the two powers “as neither allies nor adversaries”.
The Chinese assistant foreign minister complained that the US missile defence programme was not simply “defensive” but also “offensive” because “it includes lasers that attack a missile in launch phase over the sovereign territory of the launching country”.
The most recent cable in the collection was sent from the office of Mrs Clinton in January 2010.
It claimed that US intelligence detected that China had launched a fresh anti-satellite missile test. Crucially, Washington wanted to keep secret its knowledge that the missile test was linked to China’s previous space strikes.
The cable, marked “secret” said the Chinese army had sent an SC-19 missile that successfully destroyed a CSS-X-11 missile about 150 miles above the Earth.
“This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT [anti-satellite] and ballistic missile defense technologies,” stated the memo to the US embassy in Beijing.
Mrs Clinton’s cable stressed that “the Obama administration” retained the Bush-era concerns over Chinese space weapon plans.
There is growing concern over the potential for nuclear states or terrorists to attack western countries using space. Last September, Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, warned that rogue countries or terrorist groups could wipe out electronic systems by producing an electromagnetic pulse through a nuclear explosion high above the Earth.
On Wednesday night, a Pentagon spokesman said: “The President’s June 2010 National Space Policy requires the Dept. of Defense (DoD) to have a range of options and capabilities. Our overriding objective is to promote the peaceful use of space.
“The United States did not engage our own satellite to test or demonstrate an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. The purpose was to prevent the satellite’s hydrazine fuel from causing potential harm to life on the ground.
“To conduct this engagement, we had to make modifications to three sea-based missile defense interceptors, three ships, and the system’s command and control software.
“We have not made these modifications to any other missile defense system, nor do we plan to. Our missile defense systems are not intended or designed to engage satellites.”