Chinese Warship Lasered an Australian Surveillance Plane—When Will We Hit Back?

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News Analysis

China’s Navy is firing lasers again, this time at an Australian surveillance plane within Australia’s own exclusive economic zone, and very likely within sight of the Australian mainland.

This is a laser redux of similar aggression by China’s Navy against U.S. and Australian pilots that has occurred on multiple occasions over the years, without serious response. That failure of credible deterrence is an invitation for more abuse.

China’s latest laser show cannot in any way be presented as a defensive action by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). It is offensive, against a U.S. ally, and up close and personal.

Australia’s prime minister, the conservative Scott Morrison, rightly described the attack as an “act of intimidation.” An expert commentator claimed that it could be a laser rangefinder for a much more powerful weapon.

Regardless, it could have blinded the pilots, who flew a P-8A Poseidon aircraft hit on Feb. 17. It should result in consequences.

Back in the 1950s, the PLAN ship would have been shot out of the water. Perhaps a jet fighter that accompanies the plane could have replied with an uncomfortably close shot across the ship’s bow. That would have sent the message and given the next captain of a PLAN ship pause before lasering a U.S. ally.

Now we have gentler methods of making the point, which should at least be new economic sanctions that cost the regime in Beijing hundreds of millions of dollars every time a PLAN ship even thinks of unpacking its lasers.

The responsibility for imposing these consequences should not rest on the shoulders of Australia alone. All democracies and countries that value their independence should support Australia with coordinated international sanctions that hit Beijing hard and where it counts—in the wallet.

The laser was “aimed” off Australia’s north coast. Australia’s Defense Force (ADF) said on Feb. 19 that the PLAN vessel illuminated the Australian plane as the former traveled east in the Arafura Sea, which abuts the Northern Territory. The ADF said the lasering could “endanger lives” on the Australian plane. “Such actions are not in keeping with the standards we expect of professional militaries.”

The following day, Morrison said, “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.”

He rightly stated that the latest act of aggression fully justifies Australia’s decision to ally more closely with the United States, Japan, Britain, and India in various formations, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) with the United States, Japan, and India, as well as the AUKUS pact, in which the United States and United Kingdom are providing Australia with critical nuclear propulsion technology for its submarines, and making a pretty penny in the process.

France, which has lagged other democracies on the issue of China, and which had offered Australia outdated diesel-electric submarines, lost a penny.

Epoch Times Photo
(L-R) Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton, Foreign Minister Marise Payne, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pose for a group photograph at the State Department in Washington, on Sept. 16, 2021. The U.S. announced a new alliance with Australia and Britain to strengthen military capabilities in the face of a rising China, with Canberra to get a nuclear submarine fleet and U.S. cruise missiles. (Andrew Harnik/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Morrison reasonably demanded that China do a full investigation of the incident and provide a report. So far, Beijing has been entirely mum. If it keeps that up for a couple more days, Australia and its allies should impose joint economic sanctions immediately.

On Feb. 21, the prime minister doubled down. “We haven’t received an explanation as yet,” he said on an Australian radio interview.

“This is a dangerous and reckless act. And worse, it can be seen, as I said yesterday, as an act of intimidation and bullying. They were in our exclusive economic zone and they were pointing a laser at an Australian surveillance aircraft,” Morrison said.

U.S. and Australian pilots have noted incidents of Chinese military lasering of allied planes and helicopters since at least 2017, including from PLAN vessels, China’s military base in Djibouti, and even disguised fishing boats. The latter are China’s militarized and heavily subsidized Maritime Militia, which ply the waters far from where any sane unsubsidized Chinese fisherman would go.

To add insult to possible injury, Beijing signed the 1995 Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, an international agreement that bans the lasering of pilots. But the regime has made a mockery of international law so frequently that any reliance on its promises became foolhardy long ago.

The Chinese Communist Party previously denied reports of its military forces lasering U.S. and Australian pilots. These denials should never have been allowed to go unanswered and without economic sanctions. The failure to respond to these provocations—in a way that impacts Beijing directly—is an invitation for more.

Morrison last week rightly accused the Labor Party in Australia of being weak against China. He said that Beijing prefers Labor to the conservatives as a result. He’s right to say so.

But it’s time for conservatives to put their money where their mouths are, and take much tougher action against Beijing. Sadly, Morrison is behind in the polls. If he is on the way out anyway, let’s hope he at least gives Beijing a parting shot at the end.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr


Anders Corr has a bachelor’s/master’s in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. His latest books are “The Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy, and Hegemony” (2021) and “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea” (2018).

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