United States military pilots have been warned to beware of possible laser attacks near China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti amid increasing signs of friction between the two armed forces in the Horn of Africa.
The military issued a Notice to Airmen, later reproduced on the US Federal Aviation Administration’s website, that there had been multiple events “involving a high-power laser” just 750 meters (2,400ft) from China’s base in Djibouti.
“Use extreme caution when transiting near this area,” the notice added.
Multiple intelligence sources reported that Chinese garrison in Djibouti is suspected of operating a high-power laser weapon to temporarily blind pilots at the base or on a ship offshore, according to a report in Jane’s Defence Weekly last month.
But Chinese military observers said the lasers might have been used to scare off birds near the airfield or disrupt possible spy drones, rather than targeting foreign pilots.
They also pointed out that China is a signatory to the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which bans the use of lasers that cause permanent blindness.
“The Chinese and US bases in Djibouti are really close, so one could disturb the other if the two sides don’t have a proper communication mechanism,” said Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military analyst.
Zhou noted that China has already publicly demonstrated its use of laser weapons against drones at air exhibitions.
As the US has increasingly eyes China as a strategic rival, the proximity of the two bases in Djibouti means the two sides will be involved in a “quiet contest” to gather information about each other, according to Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military expert, although neither side “would announce this openly”.
Work began on the 36-hectare Chinese base in 2016, which was to be used a logistics hub to resupply vessels taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia. Weeks after the base opened at the start of August 1 the troops based there started live-fire drills.
The Chinese accused the Japanese of using frogmen attempting to gather information about their ships. The Japanese responded that they were simply doing maintenance on their own ships. But the Chinese are flexing their muscles across the Pacific and this situation will bear watching.
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