World News

For U.S. and China, Lasers and Missiles Heighten Military Tensions

Posted May 4, 2018 12:06 p.m. EDT

BEIJING — Tensions between the United States and China flared on two military fronts as Washington accused the Chinese of harassing American pilots flying over the African nation of Djibouti and warned of consequences to the deployment of missiles on artificial islands China has built in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

The Pentagon’s spokeswoman, Dana W. White, said Thursday that personnel at China’s military base in Djibouti have in recent weeks been aiming powerful lasers at U.S. aircraft that also operate in or near the country, which is where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet.

She did not detail the number of incidents but said the lasers — which can be used to target aircraft — caused minor eye injuries to two American pilots.

The accusations came a time when the two countries have found themselves increasingly at odds, particularly over trade, which was the subject of a second day of talks here in Beijing attended by President Donald Trump’s senior economic advisers and their Chinese counterparts.

The episodes in Djibouti heightened concerns in Washington about China’s growing military assertiveness in a vast region from the Horn of Africa to the Pacific. The modernization of China’s military has been a core mission of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has recently presided over displays of military might on land and sea and appears eager to challenge American military supremacy in Asia.

The United States also objected to the deployment of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles on islands that China claims in the South China Sea. Such deployments have been reported before, but never before have they been so explicitly confirmed by American and Chinese officials. The deployments contradict assurances that Xi made to President Barack Obama in 2015 not to “militarize” the area.

“We’ve raised concerns directly with the Chinese about this,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Thursday when asked if the deployment of missiles in the South China Sea crossed “a red line” for the United States.

“And there will be near-term and long-term consequences,” she added.

The Chinese appeared unfazed by the warnings. Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed the deployment of weapons to the islands, saying they were defensive and intended “to safeguard China’s sovereignty and security.” “The relevant deployment targets no one,” Hua said when asked about a report by CNBC that the missiles had been deployed in the past month on three Chinese bases in the Spratly Islands: Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs. Such missile systems could threaten aircraft and ships that approach the disputed territories — something the United States makes a point of doing periodically to exercise freedom of navigation naval exercises within what it considers international waters.

“Anyone with no invasive intention will find no reason to worry about this,” she added.

While China has long claimed the islands, reefs and other outcroppings within the South China Sea, other nations also have claims there, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

China’s vast reclamation project, which began in earnest in 2013, shortly after Xi became the country’s paramount leader, has steadily turned once-uninhabited places into fortified islands with airfields and increasingly military outposts. In doing so it has brushed aside warnings from the United States and other nations and even a ruling against its territorial claims by an international arbitration panel in 2016.

China’s base in Djibouti, its first overseas, has long been a source of concern for the United States and other militaries operating around the Horn of Africa. It opened last year and has been portrayed by the Chinese as a logistics base to support anti-piracy, counterterrorism and humanitarian operations in Africa and the Middle East.

It also happens to be just a few miles from the only permanent U.S. base in Africa, which was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The base, operated by the Navy adjacent to Djibouti’s international airport, is home to some 4,000 personnel, including those involved in highly secretive missions in the region, including at least two Navy SEAL raids into Yemen. The use of lasers was first made public in April in a warning to pilots issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. It noted that there had been multiple instances of “a high-power laser” being used near where the Chinese base is. Using lasers to disorient or disable pilots is an old military tactic, but an international protocol adopted in 1995 and joined by China prohibits the practice.

White said that there was no doubt about the origin of the lasers, and that the Pentagon had asked the Chinese to investigate. “It’s a serious matter,” she said, “and so we’re taking it very seriously.”

In a statement Friday afternoon, China’s Ministry of National Defense strongly disputed the Pentagon’s accusations, saying they were “completely inconsistent with fact.”

The Global Times, a Chinese newspaper that often takes a hawkish line, published an article in English on Wednesday — before the Pentagon’s briefing on the injuries to two American pilots — that quoted military experts calling the accusations phony.

A longer article in Chinese, however, gave other benign explanations for the incidents. In any case, the article asked, why were the Americans flying so close to the Chinese base?

“In this regard,” it went on, suggestively, “the Americans seem to be shouting ‘thief’ to get away with their own crimes.”