By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military needs to deepen dialogue with China to better understand the intent of its space programs, a U.S. general said on Tuesday, after a Chinese commander announced plans to develop offensive military capabilities in space.
General Kevin Chilton, head of the Pentagon's Strategic Command which coordinates U.S. military operations in space, said China-watchers had been "absolutely amazed" by the country's advances in its space programs over the past decade.
China was "on a fast-track to improving capabilities" and is not alone in wanting to ramp up its operations in space, he said.
"I think what we have all come to understand is that space is a competitive domain," Chilton said. "We're going to have to address these issues and these concepts and I think it's better we do them through ... a forum that provides an open dialogue between our nations than to do them without that dialogue."
People's Liberation Army Air Force Commander Xu Qiliang was quoted on Sunday by the Xinhua state news agency as saying China's air force would develop capabilities for offensive and defense operations in space and that "only power could protect peace."
Chilton said Xu's reported comments represented "an area that we'll want to explore and understand exactly what China's intentions are here."
The U.S. military would want to know "why they might want to go in that direction and what grounds might exist to accommodate a different direction."
Three Chinese astronauts last year successfully completed the country's first spacewalk, during a 68-hour voyage hailed as a major victory by Beijing.
Its first lunar probe, the Chang'e-1 satellite, finished its mission in October 2008.
FAST-TRACK IN SPACE
Chilton said China's rapid advances in both its manned and unmanned space programs were to be commended, but also showed the need for greater transparency by China's armed forces.
"Where they're heading is one of the things that a lot of people would like to understand better -- what their goals and objectives are," he said. "But they certainly are on a fast-track to improving capabilities."
His comments reflect a broader desire by the U.S. military for better dialogue with China's armed forces, particularly after Chinese vessels repeatedly confronted American surveillance ships in Asian waters in the past year.
U.S.-Chinese military relations took a step forward last month with a visit to the United States by Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the People's Liberation Army Central Military Commission.
It was the highest-level visit by a Chinese military official since 2006 and the first significant trip since Beijing resumed military-to-military dialogue with Washington this year after halting it in 2008 to protest a $6.5 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.
Chilton, who met Xu Caihou during his U.S. tour, described the visit as positive and "really just the opening phase of a dialogue."
U.S. intelligence agencies last month singled out China as a challenge to the United States because of its "increasing natural resource-focused diplomacy and military modernization."
(Editing by Chris Wilson)