U.S. military pilots flying aircraft over the East China Sea have been targeted by blinding laser attacks more than 20 times over the last 10 months, U.S. officials told The Japan Times, after a number of similar attacks in East Africa that the Pentagon has said Chinese military personnel were behind.
The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said the attacks in the waterway, where the Chinese military has bolstered its operations, were first reported last September. The incidents were believed to have come from a range of sources, “both ashore and from fishing vessels,” spokeswoman Maj. Cassandra Gesecki said.
Indo-Pacific Command said it would not go into specifics about the incidents, but media reports quoting unidentified U.S. officials said some of the fishing boats were Chinese-flagged vessels. Officials wouldn’t definitively confirm that Chinese personnel were behind all of the incidents.
Beijing operates a “maritime militia” of Chinese fishing boats, which it trains and subsidizes with sophisticated gear such as GPS equipment. Such vessels have played an important role in China asserting its various territorial claims in the East and South China Seas.
Chinese personnel at the country’s first overseas military base in Djibouti had been using lasers to interfere with U.S. military aircraft at a nearby American base, activity that has resulted in injuries to U.S. pilots and prompted the U.S. to launch a formal diplomatic protest with Beijing.
However, unlike the Djibouti incidents, where military-grade lasers had been employed in some cases, the East China Sea incidents involved smaller, commercial-grade laser pointers popularly known as “cat grade” lasers because pet owners have known to use to play with their animals. Even so, these types of lasers have been known to temporarily blind pilots and, in some cases, cause eye damage.
“In light of these recent incidents, units operating in the area are conducting an assessment of their laser eye protection equipment,” Gesecki said.
While Chinese fishing vessels have long operated in the East China Sea, the country’s military has embarked on a military modernization program heavily promoted by President Xi Jinping, who has overseen a shift in focus toward creating a more potent fighting force. This has included projects such as building a second aircraft carrier, integrating stealth fighters into the air force and fielding an array of advanced missiles that can strike air and sea targets from long distances.
In a demonstration of its continued push to refine its power-projection capabilities and push further into the Western Pacific Ocean, the Chinese military in April conducted drills in the Pacific with its sole operating aircraft carrier.
The East China Sea is home to a long-running dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, which are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu. Japanese defense chief Itsunori Onodera said in April that Chinese activity — including naval and coast guard patrols in the waters — “has expanded and accelerated” in recent years as it seeks to assert its territorial claims.
But the activity goes beyond military.
Beijing has also used its maritime militia to hassle Japanese fishermen and the Japan Coast Guard in a bid to better enforce its claims in the East China Sea, experts say.
If the Chinese military is not directly involved in the laser incidents, it could be directing — at some level — the maritime militia to target U.S. pilots.
Although the U.S. has not taking a position on the sovereignty of the Senkakus, it has repeatedly said that they fall under its treaty obligations to defend Japan’s territory if it is attacked.