Wed, May 29, 2019 - Page 6 News List

Aussie navy pilots struck by lasers in S China Sea

AP, BEIJING

Australian navy helicopter pilots were hit by lasers while exercising in the South China Sea, forcing them to land as a precaution, a witness said yesterday.

Academic Euan Graham, who was onboard the Royal Australian Navy flagship HMAS Canberra on a voyage from Vietnam to Singapore, said in an account of the incident that the lasers had been pointed from passing fishing vessels while the Canberra was being trailed by a Chinese warship.

China maintains a robust maritime militia in the South China Sea composed of fishing vessels equipped to carry out missions just short of combat. It claims the strategic waterway virtually in its entirety and is sensitive to all foreign naval action in the area.

“Was this startled fishermen reacting to the unexpected? Or was it the sort of coordinated harassment more suggestive of China’s maritime militia? It’s hard to say for sure, but similar incidents have occurred in the western Pacific,” Graham wrote on the Web site The Strategist run by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Canberra.

Similar incidents involving lasers and the Chinese military have also been reported as far away as Djibouti, where the US and China have bases.

Graham said that while bridge-to-bridge communications with the Chinese during the voyage were courteous, the Chinese requested the Australian warships notify them in advance of any corrections to their course.

That was something the Australian navy was “not about to concede while exercising its high-seas freedoms,” Graham wrote.

The constant presence of Chinese vessels shadowing foreign ships appeared to indicate that the Chinese fleet had grown large enough to allow it to have vessels lying in wait for just such orders, he wrote.

Their trailing actions also appeared to show that China’s over-the-horizon surveillance capability was also maturing, backed by technology based at points such as Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑島) in the contested Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), where China has built military installations and an airstrip atop coral reefs.

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