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‘An Act of Intimidation’: Australia Takes China to Task Over ‘Reckless’ Laser Incident Off North Coast

Alina Wang
A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights, politics, tech, and society.
Published: February 21, 2022
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 11: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks to the media at a press conference announcing an election date at Parliament House on April 11, 2019 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Amid tense relations with Beijing, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has accused China of shining a laser at one of its reconnaissance planes, referring to the incident as “an act of intimidation,” and called for a full investigation. 

Canberra’s defense department said on Sunday, Feb. 20, that the Chinese ship that illuminated the plane had the “potential to endanger lives” by dazzling the pilots’ vision, and could be seen as an act of aggression. 

Morrison told reporters today that his government had not received an explanation from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) over the incident that took place on Feb. 17 in the country’s northern coast. 

Canberra is now demanding answers over the “dangerous and reckless” event and called it bullying on China’s part.

“This was dangerous, it was unprofessional and it was reckless for a professional navy, and we want some answers as to why they did this,” Morrison said. “At worst, it was intimidating and bullying.”

“They’re the ones who need to explain, not just to Australia, but to think of all the countries in our region,” he added. “It could occur to anyone else who is just simply doing the normal surveillance of their own Exclusive Economic Zone.”

A Chinese vessel used a laser on an Australian Defense Force (ADF) aircraft, the ADF said in a statement on Feb. 20. (Image: via the Australian military)

Beijing: Australia’s allegations are ‘not true’

Chinese authorities dismissed the allegations as “not true” and defended the Chinese ship’s movements as “normal navigation in line with relevant international law.”

A spokesman for China’s defense ministry also claimed an Australian P-8 patrol aircraft had come within 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) of their vessel and engaged in “malicious provocations” that “posed a threat to maritime safety.”

During a daily press briefing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters the ship was abiding by international laws and warned Australia to stop spreading “malicious information.”

“After checking with relevant Chinese authorities, the information released by the Australian side is 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,” Wang said.

“We urge the Australian side to respect the legitimate rights of Chinese vessels in relevant waters in accordance with international law and stop maliciously spreading false information about China.”

Worsening relations

This isn’t the first time China has been accused of targeting Australian aircraft using “military-grade lasers” in the South China Sea. An incident that took place in 2019 saw Australian defense force helicopters being pointed at with lasers by the PLA, raising alarms that China was partaking in acts of bullying against international aircrafts. 

Relations between China and Australia have nosedived in recent years after Morrison called for an “independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” which was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Beijing responded by placing hefty tariffs on Australian goods – dragging both countries into a protracted trade standoff worth billions of dollars.

“I think the Chinese government is hoping that nobody talks about these aggressive bullying acts,” Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said previously, labeling the incident as “very aggressive,” and added that a full investigation should be conducted immediately. 

Beijing also reacted with fury when Canberra joined a trilateral defense pact alongside the United States and the United Kingdom last year. The AUKUS security plan will enable Australia to “acquire nuclear-powered submarines,” in an effort to counter China’s growing military prowess and influence in the Asia-Pacific region.