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China grounds 'space force' talk

Don"t expect China to march into Star Wars anytime soon.

Earlier this week, Air Force Commander Xu Qiliang of the People"s Liberation Army said that "competition between military forces is shifting to space" in an interview with Xinhua.

Not so fast, said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu. At a regular news briefing yesterday, he said that the direction of China"s space program is for only peaceful ventures.

"I want to point out China has all along upheld the peaceful use of outer space. We oppose the weaponization of outer space or a space arms race," Ma said. "China has never and will not participate in an outer space arms race in any form. The position of China on this point remains unchanged."

In the interview, Xu said "we must build a space force that conforms with the needs of our nation"s development, the demands of space age development and good for regional stability and world peace".

His comments triggered speculation about the intention of the nation"s space program at a time when its development has skyrocketed.

China"s first lunar probe, the Chang"e-1 satellite, finished its mission in October 2008.

Last year, three Chinese astronauts completed the country"s first spacewalk during a 68-hour voyage. The Chinese air force is also celebrating its 60th anniversary next week.

The AFP said Xu"s remarks sparked speculation of a possible shift in China"s military policy. The Straits Times, a newspaper in Singapore, quoted analysts as saying Xu"s comment "signals a turning point in China"s military posture".

United States General Kevin Chilton, who heads the US Strategic Command, even said on Tuesday he wanted more information on China"s position when asked about Xu"s remarks.

Beijing"s space program "is an area that we"ll want to explore and understand exactly what China"s intentions are here, and why they might want to go in that direction and what grounds might accommodate a different direction," Reuters quoted him as saying.

But Xu said in the interview that "the People"s Liberation Army Air Force will never pose a military threat to any country".

He specified that the air force"s only purpose was to guard China"s security.

Zhai Dequan, deputy director of China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, said the key problem with the speculation is that there "is still distrust (over China"s military development)".

"No matter how sincere China is, they would consider it a conspiracy," he said, adding that Western media has misrepresented China"s growth during the time when many countries are advancing space technology.

Major General Peng Guangqian, a Beijing-based military strategist, said China is opposed to "changing the outer space into a battlefield".

Xu"s pledge to expand the air force"s capabilities was timed ahead of the 60th anniversary of the Chinese air force and was intended for a domestic audience, said Professor Wang Xiangsui of the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

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