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Esper confronts China on shooting laser at US Navy plane

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper delivers a speech during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 18, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)
March 07, 2020

Defense Secretary Mark Esper confronted Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe over the hostile nation’s use of a high-powered laser pointed at a Navy P-8A aircraft last month.

During the call on Tuesday with Wei, Esper raised concern over the Feb. 17 incident, a Pentagon statement said. The Chinese military used a navy destroyer 161 to shoot a laser at the U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft while flying in international airspace approximately 380 miles west of Guam.

“Secretary Esper called on the People’s Liberation Army to conduct itself safely and professionally in accordance with bilateral agreements and international standards of safety at sea,” the statement said. “The incident underscores the need for the two militaries to enhance bilateral crisis communication mechanisms to ensure incidents like this do not escalate or lead to miscalculation.”

Despite the fact that firing a laser can be a hostile action, an official readout of the call appears to have overlooked the specific nature of the call, in which the two discussed other matters, including the containment and prevention of the spread of the coronavirus. Simply stated, the readout says they called to “underscored the importance of maintaining open channels of communication and continuing constructive dialogue.”

On Feb. 18, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing lodged a formal diplomatic protest with the Chinese government and the Pacific Fleet noted in a statement that the action by the Chinese military violated at least two agreements between the two nations, both of which were designed to prevent such encounters.

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“The PRC navy destroyer’s actions were unsafe and unprofessional,” the Pacific Fleet said. “Additionally, these acts violate the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a multilateral agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea. CUES specifically addresses the use of lasers that could cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment.”

Additionally, the lasering incident was inconsistent with a U.S.-China Memorandum of Understanding regarding rules for safe air and maritime travel.

“The laser, which was not visible to the naked eye, was captured by a sensor onboard the P-8A,” the statement said. “Weapons-grade lasers could potentially cause serious harm to aircrew and mariners, as well as ship and aircraft systems.”

“U.S Navy aircraft routinely fly in the Philippine Sea and have done so for many years. U.S. Navy aircraft and ships will continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows,” the Pacific Fleet added.