Australia, China trade accusations over laser use against aircraft

Canberra says Beijing broke international law when a Chinese navy ship pointed a laser at an Australian spy plane.
RFA Staff
Australia, China trade accusations over laser use against aircraft A PLA Navy Luyang-class guided missile destroyer (left) and a PLA-N Yuzhao-class amphibious transport dock vessel leave the Torres Strait and enter the Coral Sea, Feb. 18, 2022.
Australian Department of Defence

A war of words between Australia and China intensified Tuesday as Canberra accused Beijing of violating international law when a Chinese navy ship allegedly pointed a laser at an Australian surveillance airplane.

The two sides have provided their own versions of the incident that happened last Thursday in the Arafura Sea, within Australia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) off the north coast of the country.

Beijing has accused Australian forces of “provocative” behavior, and maintains that its navy acted professionally, although Canberra says the safety of the airplane plane crew was endangered.

In the latest statement released on Tuesday, the Australian Department of Defence said “at the time of the lasing incident, the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) P-8 was approximately 7.7 km from the PLA-N (People’s Republic of China Navy) vessel and was flying at an altitude of 457m.”

“The closest the P-8 flew to the PLA-N vessel was approximately 4 km,” the statement said, adding: “This is a standard flight profile for RAAF maritime patrol aircraft for a visual investigation of a surface vessel.”

“The aircraft was acting within international law at all times,” the statement said.

The ministry also released photos of Chinese warships that were present at the time, the guided-missile destroyer Hefei and the amphibious transport dock Jinggang Shan but did not say which ship the laser beams came from.

“This is the closest an attempt at military intimidation by China has gotten to our shores,” wrote John Blaxland, professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, on The Conversation website.

“With the stakes rising, and an [federal] election looming, there is a need for issues like this to be handled firmly, but delicately,” he warned. National elections in Australia are due by May.

Three days earlier, in a media release, the Australian defense ministry condemned “unprofessional and unsafe military conduct” of the Chinese navy ship and said that these actions “could have endangered the safety and lives of the Australia defence force’s personnel.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison followed up by demanding China to explain the Chinese ship’s "dangerous" and "reckless" act.

In an interview on Monday, Morrison said: “It was dangerous, and at worst, it was intimidating and bullying.”

“So we're expecting answers,” the prime minister said.

A file photo showing a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane flying over the Indian Ocean during an exercise with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, Dec. 14, 2021.  Credit: U.S. Navy
A file photo showing a Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon surveillance plane flying over the Indian Ocean during an exercise with the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, Dec. 14, 2021. Credit: U.S. Navy
Provocative actions

Chinese officials quickly dismissed Australia’s accusations.

On Monday, a spokesman of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense accused the Australian surveillance aircraft of committing “malicious and provocative actions” by flying close to the PLA Navy vessel and planting sonar buoys in the water around it.

Sonar buoys, or sonobuoys, are small buoys that are often released from aircraft and used to collect acoustic data in the water.

Senior Col. Tan Kefei said Chinese ships “always maintained safe, standard and professional operations.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin meanwhile claimed that “the information released by the Australian side is untrue”.

Wang urged Australian authorities to “stop maliciously disseminating China-related disinformation,” to which the Australian defense ministry replied: “Australia does not engage in the spread of misinformation or disinformation.”

The ministry also said that the “use of sonobuoys for maritime surveillance is common practice,” however, “no sonobuoys were used prior to the PLA-N vessel directing its laser at the P-8A aircraft.”

Blaxland from the Australian National University said that the Chinese action seemed to be an escalation in assertive and adversarial behavior of the PLA Navy because the incident happened in uncontested waters within Australia’s EEZ.

“China may be seeking to send a message to Canberra that its naval patrols in the South China Sea are not welcome,” he said.

Not only the Australian navy, but navies from the U.S., U.K. and some other countries have been conducting so-called Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the seas in the Indo-Pacific region.

Laser pointing

Analysts say this is not the first time China has been accused of firing laser beams at foreign aircraft.

In February 2020, a Chinese military warship reportedly fired a laser at a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft while it was flying over the Pacific Ocean. Chinese government denied the accusation, saying the P-8 was flying too low near its warships despite warnings.

In 2019, Australian navy helicopter pilots taking part in the Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 military exercise in the South China Sea said they were hit with laser beams from fishing boats suspected of being part of China’s maritime militia.

Industrial grade lasers are harmful and can cause blindness if shone into a person’s eyes.

Pointing a laser at someone can also have a psychological impact, as laser targeting often happens right before a firing of live munitions.



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