Australia accused a Chinese warship of shining a military grade laser at an Australian Air Force Poseidon 8A (P-8A) surveillance plane. The incident occurred on 17 February in Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and also involved the dropping of sonobuoys by the Australian aircraft. Australian politicians quickly seized the opportunity to blast China and bolster their standing in the upcoming elections. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the incident was an “act of intimidation.” Defense Minister Peter Dutton said Australia “would always stand up to China’s coercion, bullying and intimidation”. But politics aside, there is much more to this incident than meets the eye.
The Australian Department of Defense condemned China’s “unprofessional and unsafe military conduct.” This position has been backed by several Australian analysts including former RAAF Group Captain Peter Layton. He authored a piece in the prominent Lowy Institute’s Interpreter alleging that China’s use of a military-grade laser was a purposeful hostile act of aggression “authorized at the highest levels.” The piece further asserted that “trying to injure people appears on its way to being the new Chinese grey zone norm”. These dangerous assertions are speculation based on questionable assumptions. The incident and explanations thereof raise many questions and deserve closer examination.
First, it is not clear what type of laser was fired at the plane. The Layton piece said that it was part of a fire control system. But others said it was a “dazzler designed to temporarily blind adversaries or burn sensors.” The Layton piece alleges that such use “appears to be in contravention of the 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons”. Both Australia and China are parties to that Protocol.
Core questions are what type of laser was used, what was the intent of firing the laser, and what was its effect?
The Protocol stipulates that “laser weapons specifically designed_ _to cause permanent blindness to unenhanced vision are prohibited.” But it also states that “blinding as an incidental or collateral effect of the legitimate military employment of laser systems is not covered by the Protocol. So was the laser aimed directly at– and only at– the cockpit, with the intention to blind the pilots or damage critical electronic equipment? Or was it aimed at the plane as a whole as a range finder? Did it blind or injure the pilots, or were they wearing protective eyeware? To be sure, firing a laser at an aircraft is a n unfriendly act. But if the laser was not designed to injure, and there was no intent to cause harm and there was none, the Protocol may not have been violated.
Second, why did the Chinese warship fire a laser at the plane? Was this a response to a hostile act on the part of the aircraft? The US produced P8As are armed with torpedoes, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and other weapons. Did the Chinese commander consider its approach ‘unsafe’, harassment, or a hostile ‘provocation’? If so, was the action justified?
The Australian Defense Force had been tracking the surface vessels for days. If there was thought to be a submarine in the vicinity, was the P-8A subhunter trying to identify it and collect its ‘signature’ to pass on to the Americans. If so, was it reasonable for China to view this act as hostile or at the least ‘unfriendly’?
The Layton piece claims that the use of the laser was unprovoked because the Australian subhunter dropped the sonobuoys in the vicinity of the Chinese warships only after the firing of the laser. If –as the piece says– the laser was fired before the P-8A dropped the sonobuoys, their deployment could have been seen as retaliation and a ‘hostile act’.
Both Australia and China have agreed to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). It recommends “avoiding the discharge of objects in the direction of vessels encountered”. Did the aircraft’s dropping of sonobuoys near the vessels go against this recommendation?
The Chinese vessels were exercising their UN Convention on the Law of the Sea supported right of freedom of navigation on the high seas. Yes they were in the Australian EEZ and this may have added an element of knee-jerk nationalism to the Australian reaction. But as the U.S. never tires of pointing out, EEZs are “international” waters for purposes of navigation by warships.
There are many questions that need to be answered before jumping to conclusions and assigning blame. Indeed, there may be enough to go around.
Mark J. Valencia
Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.