The U.S. and China are entangled in a diplomatic spat over whether China directed military-grade lasers at U.S. pilots flying over Djibouti, which comes at a time of increased concern over China’s growing presence in the region.
Pentagon officials said they were confident Chinese nationals had shined high-powered lasers at American aircrafts as many as three times in the past several weeks, resulting in minor eye injuries and possibly causing temporary blindness. The U.S. issued an official diplomatic protest and asked Beijing to investigate the incident.
“It’s enough that we’re concerned that we demarched them,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters Thursday. “We’ve asked them to investigate it.”
But China denied using lasers and instead blamed the U.S. for believing what it said to be rumors.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a daily briefing to reporters Friday that U.S. claims were “totally inconsistent with facts,” according to CNN.
"You can remind people in the U.S. they should pay attention to facts and not make groundless accusations," she said.
A Pentagon official told the Wall Street Journal about one incident involving two service members flying a C-130 aircraft who experienced dizziness and problems with their vision afterward.
The Pentagon formally warned airmen and urged them to use “extreme caution” through a notice posted on the Federal Aviation Administration website, according to the Wall Street Journal.
A U.N. treaty called the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, to which the U.S. and China are both signatories, bans the use of laser beams in war.
The incidents come at a time of heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing. The east Africa country Djibouti is a key and permanent base for American counterterrorism operations in places like Somalia and Yemen, but China is increasing its footprint there. China opened its first overseas naval base not far from the American facility last year, invested heavily in infrastructure, and strengthened its diplomatic ties with the Djibouti government.
Cover image: Image taken March 13, 2018, shows a night view of the port of Djibouti. Djibouti, an arid Horn of Africa nation with less than 1 million inhabitants, has become a military outpost for China, France, Italy and Japan, with that nation's first overseas base since World War II. (AP Photo/Elias Messeret)