The Australian Defence Department said a Chinese warship directed and flashed a laser device at an Australian patrol aircraft on Thursday, endangering the flight crew.
Australian officials described the incident in a press statement first published Saturday. According to the statement, an Australian P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft was flying over Australia’s northern approaches when it detected that a laser was pointing at it and determined the laser was emanating from a Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA-N) vessel operating in the area.
“Illumination of the aircraft by the Chinese vessel is a serious safety incident,” Australia’s Defense Department said. “Acts like this have the potential to endanger lives.”
Shining lasers at aircraft runs the risk of damaging a pilot’s eyesight and even temporarily blinding them in flight, raising the risk of a crash or disorientation. Military-grade lasers can also have the potential to damage ship and aircraft systems.
“We strongly condemn unprofessional and unsafe military conduct. These actions could have endangered the safety and lives of the ADF personnel,” the Australian military added. “Such actions are not in keeping with the standards we expect of professional militaries.”
The Australian officials said the Chinese vessel that shined the laser was sailing alongside another PLA-N vessel. Both Chinese warships were sailing in the Arafura Sea to Australia’s north and, since the incident, have sailed east through the Torres Strait and into the Coral Sea.
Following the incident, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “I’m very concerned about the actions, though, of using the lasers on an Australian surveillance aircraft. That is, I can see it no other way than an act of intimidation, one that was unprovoked, unwarranted and Australia will never accept such acts of intimidation.”
Though the incident didn’t take place in Australia’s territorial waters, Morrison said it did take place inside Australia’s exclusive economic zone.
“I have no doubt that it had been an Australian vessel, or a British vessel, American vessel, a French vessel, a Japanese vessel for that matter, or German, that was going through a similar waters up in the South China Sea and that was done to a Chinese surveillance aircraft, then I think people can guess about what reaction to that would have been,” Morrison added.
Reuters reported Australia has since called on the Chinese side to conduct a “full investigation” of the incident.
In response to the Australian claims, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, “According to what we have checked and verified with relevant department on the Chinese side, the information released by the Australian side is untrue.”
“The normal navigation of Chinese vessels on the high seas is in line with relevant international law and international practice and completely legal and legitimate,” Wenbin added. “We urge Australia to respect the lawful rights that China’s vessels are entitled to in relevant waters under international law and stop maliciously disseminating China-related disinformation.”
This is not the first time China has been accused of targeting other nations’ aircraft with lasers. In February 2020, the U.S. military raised complaints U.S. aircraft flying into a base in the east African country of Djibouti were being targeted with lasers coming from a nearby Chinese military base.