SYDNEY – Fishing boats in Chinese-claimed waters in the South China Sea shone lasers at the pilots of Australian navy combat helicopters during a recent exercise, Australian officials said, which follows similar incidents targeting US military aircraft in the western Pacific and Indian oceans.
Australian officials said it was unclear if the fishing boats were Chinese. US officials have blamed many of the earlier incidents, including one near China’s new naval base in Djibouti, on Chinese military personnel or its maritime militia of fishermen trained, and equipped, to protect China’s territorial claims.
“Australian Defence Force assets operating across the region have observed an increase in the use of hand-held lasers by some vessels,” an official said.
“The reason for vessels using the lasers is unknown but it may be to draw attention to their presence in congested waterways. The inappropriate use of lasers would pose a potential safety risk to all those operating in the region.”
The Australian pilots were operating within the ‘nine-dash’ line that China claims, in the southern part of the South China Sea, close to the coastline of Vietnam, according to Euan Graham, an expert in Indo-Pacific Security at La Trobe University who was on board the Australian warship HMAS Canberra as an academic observer. The Australian ship was being tailed by a Chinese warship at the time.
China has stepped up naval and coast guard patrols in recent years in an effort to assert its territorial claims. Beijing has also used a maritime militia of Chinese fishing boats.
“There was no way to be sure where those fishing boats were from, but it is very consistent with a pattern we’ve seen toward the use of maritime militia generally,” Graham said. It was hard to understand why any fishing boat would point a laser at an attack helicopter under normal circumstances, he said.
China says it has undisputed sovereignty over all South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters, and delineates its claims with the nine-dash line stretching from the mainland Chinese coast almost as far as Malaysian Borneo.
Its claims overlap with those of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines, a US treaty ally.
The US and several of its allies, including Australia, have stepped up their military patrols and exercises in the South China Sea since China started building seven heavily fortified artificial islands on rocks and reefs in the disputed Spratlys archipelago about five years ago.
The laser incidents occurred at the end of a three-month tour of seven Asian nations by an Australian naval fleet. The group made two transits through the South China Sea, closely tailed by the Chinese military.
China’s Defense Ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but has denied the US allegations of Chinese military involvement in the earlier incidents.
The latest episode came to light just days before a major security summit in Singapore this weekend at which the US and China are expected to clash verbally about issues including the South China Sea.
Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan is expected to give a speech on Saturday assessing the security challenges facing the Indo-Pacific and outlining the administration’s strategy for responding to China’s military activities in the region.
China’s defense minister, Gen. Wei Fenghe, is due to address the conference the following day, according to the organizers.
Officials typically view laser incidents as low-level harassment: The Australian pilots were given medical checkups but the warship didn’t change its course and flight operations continued.
As they become increasingly commonplace, though, Graham said the question arises: At what point China’s tactic of using nonmilitary measures to make life harder for its rivals “crosses the line into something more serious.”