The Philippines has accused China of “a blatant disregard” and “clear violation” of sovereignty, alleging that a Chinese coast guard ship last week directed a “military-grade laser light” at a Philippine Coast Guard ship in the hotly contested South China Sea, temporarily blinding the Filipino crew onboard.
A statement released Monday by the Philippine Coast Guard said the Chinese vessel “illuminated the green laser light twice” and “also made dangerous maneuvers” to block a Philippine fleet from delivering supplies to another ship grounded at Second Thomas Shoal, also known as Ayungin Shoal, a disputed atoll 120 miles off the west coast of the Philippine island of Palawan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a daily briefing later on Monday that the Philippine ship had trespassed into Chinese waters and that, without mentioning the laser, the China Coast Guard responded “in a professional and restrained way.” He added: “We hope the Philippine side will respect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and avoid taking any actions that may exacerbate disputes and complicate the situation.”
On Tuesday, the Philippines’ foreign affairs department announced that it had filed a diplomatic protest to China’s Manila embassy over the incident. Spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza added that the China Coast Guard’s actions were especially “disturbing and disappointing” because Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had just visited Beijing in January to try to improve bilateral relations. Marcos Jr. summoned Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian on Tuesday to express his “serious concern” about the fracas.
The episode is the latest sign of rising tensions in the region. Just days earlier, the Philippines reinvigorated its military ties with the United States. The two countries agreed to significantly expand America’s presence in the Southeast Asian archipelago, as U.S. officials grow increasingly worried about China’s threat to nearby Taiwan and as the Philippines remains concerned about territorial incursions by its largest neighbor.
In a statement, U.S. Department of State Spokesperson Ned Price expressed support for the Philippines, reiterating that an armed attack on Philippine forces would invoke a mutual defense pact that obliges the countries to help defend each other. Price said China’s “dangerous operational behavior directly threatens regional peace and stability, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order.”
China has laid claim to virtually all of the South China Sea, and has militarized the area by deploying naval ships and reclaiming the islands and other features for military infrastructure. The Philippines, one of several claimants of the area, has repeatedly filed diplomatic protests in response to Chinese aggression in those waters; nonetheless, Beijing has continued its activities there.
Last week’s incident is certainly not the first escalation between Chinese and Philippine forces. The Philippine Coast Guard says the China Coast Guard has previously attempted to thwart its ships in the South China Sea, including a similar blockade of a resupply mission last August. But this was the first time the Chinese used lasers in that effort, Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Commodore Armand Balilo told the Associated Press.
China has been accused of using lasers elsewhere though.
A U.S. military official, according to a CNN report in 2018, identified at least 20 incidents between September 2017 and June 2018 involving lasers suspected to be from Chinese sources targeting U.S. aerial operations in the Pacific.
In 2019, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that Chinese maritime militia vessels used lasers to attack Australian pilots flying through the South China Sea.
And in February 2022, a transiting Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel allegedly directed a military-grade laser at an Australian air force plane conducting coastal maritime surveillance in the Arafura Sea off the country’s north coast. Australian officials condemned the incident—a senator at the time described it as “unquestionably an aggressive act, intended to intimidate”—while China denied it ever happened.
Jose Antonio Custodio, a defense analyst and fellow at the Consortium of Indo-Pacific Researchers, says that while China may argue that laser technology is an appropriate, non-lethal tool, its use does hold the potential to kill. “For example, a blinded crew of an aircraft might lose orientation and then their aircraft may just plummet to the sea,” Custodio tells TIME. He suggests that countries like the Philippines consider countermeasures, such as protective gear, to prepare for future incidents.
The latest laser accusation by the Philippines also comes as China already faces growing distrust around the world, especially after American officials revealed a global espionage operation involving the military use of balloons like the one shot down last week over South Carolina by the U.S. Air Force.
“It’s time for the Chinese government to restrain its forces,” Armed Forces of the Philippines Spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar told reporters on Monday. “So that it does not commit any provocative act that will endanger the lives of people.”
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