The US has accused the Chinese navy of targeting a patrol aircraft with a weapons-grade laser from on board a warship in the western Pacific.

Washington said it was the most direct confrontation yet involving such weapons between the two militaries. 

A People’s Republic of China navy destroyer directed lasers towards a US Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft on February 17 while flying in airspace above international waters approximately 380 miles west of Guam, the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Thursday. 

The US military said this was the first such incident involving a Chinese warship. 

Rachel McMarr, Pacific Fleet spokesperson, said: “There have been sporadic incidents involving the use of lasers either from shore or from Chinese fishing boats. But this is the first time that was done using the board weapons of a PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Navy vessel.” 

The US Pacific Fleet said last week’s incident violated the multilateral Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and a bilateral US-China memorandum of understanding on rules for safety of air and sea encounters. “Weapons-grade lasers could potentially cause serious harm to air crew and mariners, as well as ship and aircraft systems,” it said. 

Bates Gill, a professor of Asia-Pacific Security Studies at Macquarie University, said the destroyer’s use of a laser weapon against the US aircraft matched a pattern under which the Chinese military gradually stepped up challenges against its adversaries. “It adds another layer of provocation and ambition to the PLAN’s operations,” he said. 

The Chinese defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, a statement of the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command published on Wednesday, said the Chinese destroyer named by the US Pacific Fleet was at the time participating in a 41-day exercise during which the ships crossed the international dateline for the first time.

The Global Times, a Chinese state-owned nationalist tabloid, earlier this week called the drill a “move that challenges US hegemony in the open waters”.

Two years ago, the Pentagon accused China of repeatedly pointing lasers at US military aircraft near Djibouti, where both countries have military bases. China at the time denied the accusation but Washington called the incidents “very serious” and said one had slightly injured pilots’ eyes. 

In May last year, Australian military helicopters were targeted with lasers during a night flight over the disputed South China Sea, and the Australian Defence Force later said the use of handheld lasers by fishing vessels against military aircraft was on the rise. 

The waters and airspace between Guam and the Philippines are an area where US and Chinese military interests in the region increasingly collide.

Chinese military aircraft and warships pass through the area with increasing frequency. The area would be indispensable in a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Guam hosts two of the most important US military bases in Asia-Pacific. US submarines or aircraft based in Guam have to pass through the waters on their way to any regional ally.



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