By Jon Dougherty
Officials with the Australian military say that their navy pilots were targeted with lasers as they flew over the South China Sea near manufactured islands built by China in recent days.
The South China Morning Post reported that, according to officials aboard the Australian warship HMAS Canberra, the pilots were hit by lasers during a cruise from Vietnam to Singapore, during which time they were shadowed by a Chinese warship.
The Australian Defense Force said, “Assets operating across the region have observed an increase in the use of handheld lasers by some vessels.”
In the current incident, helicopter pilots flying from the HMAS Canberra were marked with lasers as they took part in the months-long Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2019 exercise.
“With regards to the incident mentioned … the Royal Australian Navy pilots involved were examined as a precautionary measure and cleared of any injury by medical staff.”
China has become more assertive in the region in recent years as part of Beijing’s effort to gain control over a vast and vital shipping lane.
The U.S. Navy, meanwhile, has stepped up its presence patrols in the region and has been working with allies including Australia, the UK, Japan, Vietnam, and South Korea to push back against Chinese expansionism.
La Trobe Asia director Euan Graham was one of several academics who were aboard the HMAS Canberra as it moved from Vietnam to Singapore. He noted that the ship was shadowed by a Chinese warship and “helicopter pilots had lasers pointed at them from passing fishing vessels.”
China has been accused of operating a maritime militia that includes fishing trawlers that carry out reconnaissance, intelligence and other missions in the South China Sea, the South China Morning Post reported.
“The reason for vessels using the lasers is unknown but it may be to draw attention to their presence in congested waterways,” the Australian military said.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, known to be rich in fishing, mineral, and oil resources.
Last year, China rejected claims by the U.S. that two of its pilots were struck with lasers while operating in Djibouti, where both countries have bases.
The Djibouti base is China’s first overseas military installation. Experts have testified to Congress that they don’t believe it is big enough for Beijing to project power, but rather is primarily used as a reconnaissance base.
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