China successfully tested new technology to intercept missiles in flight yesterday, state media has reported.
The announcement came amid repeated complaints from Beijing over the US sale of weaponry including Patriot PAC-3 air defence missiles to Taiwan.
In a terse three-sentence report, the official Xinhua news agency reported late last night that "ground-based midcourse missile interception technology" was tested within Chinese territory.
"The test has achieved the expected objective," it added, without specifying whether the missile had been destroyed, although the US reported detecting a collision.
Xinhua added: "The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country."
The report, which was issued unusually quickly, followed days of criticism of the US arms sales.
Patriots can destroy missiles in mid-air, and could be used against those deployed along the Chinese coastline facing Taiwan. The island has been self-ruled since the defeated nationalists fled there at the end of the civil war, but China still asserts its sovereignty and has warned it could use military action if the island sought formal independence.
In Washington, the defence department said the US did not consider the test related to the arms sales.
"We did not receive prior notification of the launch," Maj Maureen Schumann, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said. "We detected two geographically separated missile launch events with an exo-atmospheric collision also being observed by space-based sensors. We are requesting information from China regarding the purpose for conducting this interception as well as China's intentions and plans to pursue future types of intercepts."
Missile technology has been one focus of the Chinese military's modernisation drive, funded by double-digit rises in defence spending for several years running. Last year China's military budget rose 14.9%, to 480.6bn yuan (£44bn).
"[The test] indicates a huge scale of ambition," said Ron Huisken, of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, adding that intercepting missiles in flight was "fiendishly difficult to do".
"This is confirmation of the message that China fully intends to have the panoply of contemporary military technology at its disposal."
Huisken said that the point of such technology was to counter US rather than Taiwanese capabilities, adding: "My interpretation is that the Chinese were ready to run a test and decided this was as good an excuse as any."
Analysts believe China has used foreign weaponry to develop a number of programmes domestically.
"There is an obvious concern in Beijing that they need an effective anti-ballistic missile defence in some form," Hans Kristensen, an expert on the Chinese military with the Federation of American Scientists, told AP.
Staging a successful test "shows that their technology is maturing", Kristensen said.
The test was also a way of signalling their capabilities, he added.
A commentary issued by Xinhua yesterday – separately from the report on the test – warned: "Each time the United States has sold weapons to Taiwan, there has been huge damage to China-US relations.
"This US arms sale to Taiwan will be no exception."
It urged the Obama administration to immediately halt weapons sales to avoid damaging cooperation in "important areas".
China curtailed military-to-military contacts with the US after then president George Bush notified Congress in October 2008 of plans to sell Taiwan a long-delayed arms package valued at up to $6.4bn (£40bn).
"We have the power and ability to adopt counter-measures [against US arms sales to Taiwan]," Jin Yinan, a major-general in the People's Liberation Army and professor at China's National Defence University wrote earlier this month.
In his article for a Chinese newspaper, the Study Times, he added: "We must use counter-measures to make the other side pay a corresponding price and suffer corresponding punishment."
The Guardian UK