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Philippines Coast Guard Accuses China of Blinding Crew With ‘Military-Grade’ Laser

Time logo Time 2/13/2023 Chad de Guzman
A handout photo appears to show the alleged laser light from a Chinese ship in the South China Sea on Feb. 6, 2023. © Philippine Coast Guard A handout photo appears to show the alleged laser light from a Chinese ship in the South China Sea on Feb. 6, 2023.

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” and that, without mentioning the laser, the China Coast Guard responded “professionally and with restraint.” He added: “We hope the Philippines will earnestly respect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea and avoid any actions that may lead to the expansion of the dispute and complication of the situation.”

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.

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; despite this, 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.

The latest laser accusation by the Philippines comes as China also 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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