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Chinese sailors point laser gun at Philippine navy ship in South China Sea

Republic of the Philippines Navy ship BRP Apolinario Mabini (PS 36) steams in formation for exercise Balikatan 2010 (BK 10). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Mark R. Alvarez)
April 29, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The Philippines’ defense chief on Tuesday downplayed Beijing’s latest aggressive move in the South China Sea, saying it appeared that Chinese sailors had no real intention of hurting Filipinos when they pointed a laser gun at a Philippine navy ship.

Although the Chinese move was seen as aggressive, it likely was meant to enforce their presence in the disputed sea region, which is claimed by China, the Philippines and other countries, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

“I don’t think they have an intention to harm our men with this latest incident of pointing a laser gun,” Lorenzana said on state-run television. “Maybe they are testing what our reaction will be. And we have already filed a protest to the Chinese government.”

“But it’s offensive. Why do they need to aim their target acquisition radars on our airplanes and ships?” he said.

According to Lorenzana, the Chinese were challenging the Philippine ship by saying “You are traversing Chinese territory.”

“But our ships and airplanes say: ‘We are traveling within our EEZ or within Philippine territory,’ so it’s only an exchange of messages,” the defense secretary added, referring to waters in Manila’s exclusive economic zone.

Lorenzana issued the statement several days after the Philippine foreign office said it had filed a diplomatic protest with China for “pointing a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship” in the EEZ. Manila took that action on April 22, the same day it filed a separate diplomatic note to protest Beijing’s declaration of parts of the disputed sea as Chinese districts.

In the incident with the laser gun, the Philippine ship BRP Conrado Yap was on its way to the Rizal Reef Detachment in the South China Sea when it reported that it had detected “a radar contact of a gray-colored vessel.”

Lorenzana said the Chinese had used a target-acquisition laser meant to guide a missile toward an enemy target.

“It’s like when they will use their missile they will first strike on the target that they have already marked,” Lorenzana said.

The incident was the latest accusation that Chinese forces had used lasers to harass other nations’ naval personnel.

In February this year, the U.S. Navy accused a Chinese naval destroyer of firing off a laser beam at a U.S. surveillance aircraft flying west of Guam and over the Philippine Sea, which lies far to the north and east of the South China Sea.

A statement from U.S. Pacific Fleet said the laser, which was detected by sensors on the P-8A Poseidon aircraft on Feb. 17, was not visible to the naked eye. The U.S. Navy described the Chinese move as an act deemed unsafe and a violation of international codes and agreements.

China’s defense ministry, however, rejected the U.S. claim.

Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told reporters in Beijing last month that Chinese ships were conducting routine exercises in international waters when the incident allegedly happened. He accused the P-8A Poseidon aircraft of carrying out an “unfriendly” behavior, including long periods of low-altitude reconnaissance “despite repeated warnings from the Chinese side.”

Sending a message to China

The Chinese moves in the sea that drew the diplomatic protests from Manila occurred as the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nation were busy with curtailing the spread of the coronavirus in their territories.

A Filipino maritime expert, Jay Batongbacal, said China was taking advantage of its medical assistance to help Southeast Asian nations battle the pandemic to prevent a pushback in the maritime region.

“One could argue that [Beijing] is using this cooperation as a way to leverage against any actions or protests against China for its activities in the West Philippine Sea,” Batongbacal, told local television ANC on Monday, using the Philippine name for the South China Sea.

“This is taking place simultaneously with their medical aid and assistance and offers of cooperation on this pandemic,” said Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

On Monday, retired Philippine Supreme Court judge Antonio Carpio told foreign correspondents in Manila that the Philippines should join forces with neighbors Vietnam and Malaysia, and possibly other countries, in conducting joint patrols to deter further Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Doing so, he said, would send “a message that China cannot pick us out one by one.”

But Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the government did not agree with Carpio, although he acknowledged that the former justice’s suggestion of joint patrols with neighbors appeared to be sound.

“Suggestion well-taken, although we do not agree with the personal opinions of Justice Carpio on what China is doing. But the suggestion on joint patrol is well-taken, it will be considered,” Roque told reporters on Tuesday, as he reiterated that the government would assert territorial sovereignty against China.

“We do not agree with that conclusion, although the current policy is that we will defend all our national territory and our sovereign rights,” he said.

US sends combat ship to sea region

Meanwhile, the USS Gabrielle Giffords, a littoral combat ship, left port in Singapore for the South China Sea on April 25 and sailed near the site of a survey being conducted by the Chinese vessel Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, according to vessel-tracking software.

The presence of the USS Gabrielle Giffords in the disputed sea region was confirmed by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in a news release.

As of Tuesday, the Hai Yang Di Zhi 8, a survey ship at the heart of current tensions in the South China Sea, was operating in waters jointly claimed by Vietnam and Malaysia. It has been escorted by Chinese coast guard ships.

The USS Gabrielle Giffords joins the USS America, USS Bunker Hill, and USS Barry in demonstrating the American naval presence in the South China Sea. They were recently joined last week by Australian frigate HMAS Parramatta in a joint exercise. The KD Kelantan, a Royal Malaysian Navy warship, has also been patrolling the area.

On Tuesday, Beijing sent an aircraft battle group through the Miyako Strait, between Japan and Taiwan, according to a news release from the Japanese defense ministry. The release said China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning was spotted moving with two frigates, two destroyers and a high-speed support ship toward the East China Sea.

Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy Southern Theater released a statement on Tuesday accusing the USS Barry of violating China’s territory in the Paracel Islands.

China claims most of the South China Sea on historical grounds, including areas that reach the shores of its smaller neighbors. Apart from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims over the region.