China denies its warship fired laser at Australian surveillance aircraft

Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, a spokesman for the Chinese defence ministry, said the Australian statement was completely inconsistent with the facts.

Warships China
Australia called it "a serious safety incident" and said "acts like this have the potential to endanger lives". (Reuters)

China on Monday questioned Australia’s claim that a Chinese warship had fired laser at the surveillance aircraft while in flight over Australia’s northern approaches, saying the allegation does not square up with facts.

Australia called it “a serious safety incident” and said “acts like this have the potential to endanger lives”.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday that he’d called on the Chinese government to explain the “dangerous” and “reckless” act allegedly carried out by a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) warship last week.

“This was dangerous, it was unprofessional and it was reckless for a professional navy, and we want some answers as to why they did this,” Morrison said as he called for “full investigation”.

“At worst, it was intimidating and bullying,” he was quoted as saying by CNN.

“They’re the ones who need to explain, not just to Australia, but to think of all the countries in our region,” he added. “It could occur to anyone else who is just simply doing the normal surveillance of their own Exclusive Economic Zone.” Morrison said on Monday that the Chinese authorities had not yet responded to his call for answers.

Asked for his comment on the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a media briefing here on Monday “after we verified with relevant departments, the information released by Australia does not square up with facts.” Chinese ships conformed with international law in the high seas, he said.

“The Chinese vessel was sailing normally in the high seas, which was in line with relevant international laws and practices and perfectly legitimate,” he said.

“We urge the Australian side to respect the legitimate rights that Chinese ships enjoy in relevant waters in accordance with international law, and stop maliciously spreading false information about China,” Wang said.

Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, a spokesman for the Chinese defence ministry, said the Australian statement was completely inconsistent with the facts.

Tan said the Australian anti-submarine patrol aircraft arrived in the airspace surrounding China’s warship formation and came within 4-km of one ship.

“The Chinese warships always maintained safe, standardised and professional operations during the entire encounter with the Australian aircraft,” Tan said.

Such malicious and provocative actions can easily lead to misunderstandings and misjudgments, posing a threat to the safety of ships, aircraft and personnel.

The Chinese Defence Ministry also released two photos taken by the Chinese warship in the statement, saying the Australian aircraft was very close to the Chinese warship, and placed sonar buoys around it.

Earlier, Australia released several images of the two PLA vessels- a Luyang-class guided-missile destroyer and a Yuzhao-class amphibious transport dock vessel, which it said were sailing in the Arafura Sea at the time of the incident.

Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said the incident took place in Australia’s exclusive economic zone and said the use of lasers “can result in the blindness of the crew, it can obviously result in damage of equipment.” This is second-time China has faced such an allegation.

In 2018, China had denied a similar accusation by the US that the Chinese personnel at Djibouti logistics military base in the Horn of Africa used lasers to target American aircraft injuring the pilots.

The US had formally complained to China alleging that the Chinese military injured two US airmen by directing high-grade lasers at American aircraft in Djibouti and asked Beijing to investigate the incident.

The incident came at a time of heightening tensions between China and Australia over a host of issues.

China has vocally opposed the AUKUS – the US, Australia and UK pact – which helps Canberra to acquire the US nuclear submarines to boost its security in the face of increasing hostilities between the two countries.

Commenting on the incident, Hu Bo, director of the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that “the scenario may be that the P-8A was getting very close to the Chinese warship, but I am not sure if China shone lasers against it.” Hu said, “if the plane flew very close to Chinese warships, the Chinese side may have used a laser for ranging – as the close distance may affect our security, and we did it for the sake of defence,” but added this scenario was very unlikely.

Fu Qianshao, a former member of the PLA air force, said lasers are used for tracking the range of a potential target, and sometimes for jamming, but will not cause harm to the target unless a weapon is fired afterwards, a capacity Chinese warships lack.

The Post quoted John Blaxland, professor of international security, as saying that lasers are used largely to determine the firing range and designate a target.

Pointing a laser is often referred to as “painting a target” before firing live munitions, which is widely seen as a hostile act, just short of crossing the threshold of open conflict or war, he said.

He added that laser beams themselves are dangerous because they can cause permanent blindness if shone into someone’s eyes, as well as damaging important navigational and air safety systems.

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