The Philippine Coast Guard has accused a China Coast Guard ship of pointing a “military grade” laser at some of its crew, temporarily blinding them, aboard a vessel in contested waters of the South China last week.
The Chinese ship also “made dangerous maneuvers” in approaching within 150 yards (137 meters) of the Philippine vessel, the Philippine Coast Guard alleged in a statement posted on its official Facebook page, with photos purporting to show the laser’s green beam.
The incident allegedly occurred on February 6 near Ayungin Shoal, also known as Second Thomas Shoal, in the Spratly Islands chain, known in China as the Nansha Islands. China calls the shoal Renai Reef.
China’s Foreign Ministry said Monday the Philippine vessel “trespassed into the waters of Renai Reef without the permission of the Chinese side.”
“The Chinese maritime police vessel defended China’s sovereignty and maritime order in accordance with China’s domestic law and international law,” spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, without specifying what action the Chinese side took.
China claims “indisputable sovereignty” over almost all of the 1.3 million square mile South China Sea, as well as most of the islands within it. That includes the Spratlys, an archipelago consisting of 100 small islands and reefs also claimed in full or part by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
The Philippines calls the area the West Philippine Sea and in 1999 intentionally grounded a navy transport ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, on Second Thomas Shoal, which is still manned by Filipino marines to enforce Manila’s claim to the area.
In the February 6 incident, the Philippine vessel BRP Malapascua was on a mission to resupply the Sierra Madre when it was challenged by the Chinese ship, the Philippine release alleged.
“The Chinese ship illuminated the green laser light twice toward the BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge. The Chinese vessel also made dangerous maneuvers by approaching about 150 yards from the vessel’s starboard quarter,” the release said.
“The deliberate blocking of the Philippine government ships to deliver food and supplies to our military personnel on board the BRP Sierra Madre is a blatant disregard for, and a clear violation of, Philippine sovereign rights in this part of the West Philippine Sea.”
Allegations of Chinese ships aiming lasers as adversary craft have arisen before.
In February 2022, Australia alleged a People’s Liberation Army Navy warship “illuminated” an Australian P-8A aircraft, a reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare plane, as it was flying over the Arafura Sea, the body of water between Australia’s Northern Territory and the island of New Guinea to the north.
At the time, China said the Australian claims were “not true.”
“The normal navigation of the Chinese ship on the high seas conforms to relevant international law and practice and is completely legitimate and lawful,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang said last year.
In May 2019, Australian pilots said they were targeted multiple times by commercial lasers during missions over the South China Sea.
And in a report in June 2018, US military officials told CNN that there were at least 20 suspected Chinese laser incidents in the eastern Pacific from September 2017 to June 2018.
The alleged incident on February 6 came just days after Manila, which has a mutual defense treaty with Washington, announced plans to allow the US military access to more bases in the Philippines.
On February 2, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said the move “escalated tension in the region and endangers regional peace and stability.”
The United States makes no territorial claims in the South China Sea, but US military vessels routinely operate in the waterway in accordance to international law and freedom of the high seas.
Last year, a US State Department statement specifically mentioned Second Thomas Shoal when calling on China “to end its provocative actions and to respect international law in the South China Sea.”
Beijing was “interfering with Philippine sovereign rights within the Philippine exclusive economic zone near Second Thomas Shoal,” the June 17, 2022, statement said.
Monday’s Philippine Coast Guard statement said Chinese vessels had also blocked a Philippine resupply mission to the Sierra Madre last August.
The commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard said his service would not be deterred by any Chinese actions in what it claims as Philippine waters.
“Despite the dangerous maneuver of the much larger (Chinese) ships and their aggressive actions at sea, the (Philippine Coast Guard) ships will always be in the West Philippine Sea to sustain our presence and assert our sovereign rights,” Adm. Artermio M Abu said.