Conceptual image of a military-grade laser attack on a US military plane. Photo: US military/Victor Tangermann

MANILA – While global attention focuses on the fast-spreading Covid-19 epidemic, ratcheting US-China tensions in the South China Sea represent another rising threat to regional stability.

The US Pentagon announced last week that a Chinese warship fired a military-grade laser at US Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft while conducting a routine mission in the hotly contested maritime area.

Known as “dazzlers,” such lasers can temporarily blind pilots by beaming powerful light across vast distance and deep into aircraft cockpits up in the skies.

“[China’s] navy destroyer’s actions were unsafe and unprofessional,” the US Pacific Fleet said in a statement. “Weapons-grade lasers could potentially cause serious harm to aircrew and mariners, as well as ship and aircraft systems,” the statement said.

The Pentagon also took its fight to social media, with the US Navy’s official Instagram account accusing China of “violat[ing] the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, a multilateral agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium to reduce the chance of an incident at sea.”

The Pentagon also warned China: “You Don’t Want To Play Laser Tag With Us.” Washington is expected to lodge a formal diplomatic complaint over the laser incident in coming days, according to news reports.

It wouldn’t be the first time: in 2018, US officials warned pilots that a Chinese airbase in Djibouti may have targeted its planes with “military-grade laser beams”, resulting in Washington making a formal diplomatic complaint to Beijing.

Chinese PLA Navy soldiers on a naval vessel in the South China Sea. Photo: Twitter

The laser incident points to a potential new round of tit-for-tat provocations in the contested sea, where both China and the US are locked in a heated competition for supremacy.

Strategic analysts are now weighing whether wider US-China tensions, including in relation to their unresolved trade war and heated words and claims amid the China-borne virus crisis, could escalated the South China Sea situation.   

China’s latest provocation came against the backdrop of ramped up Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the maritime area, including maneuvers that China claims violated its sovereignty over various sea features it has transformed into full-fledged islands.

Last year, the US conducted a record-high of nine Freedom FONOPs in the South China Sea, up from five in 2018 and six in 2017.

In January, the USS Montgomery, an independence-class littoral combat ship, conducted the first US FONOP of 2020, sailing within a few nautical miles of the China- claimed Fiery Cross Reef.

Last month, the US deployed the USS Wayne E Meyer missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles of the Fiery Cross and Mischief reefs, two of the largest artificially created islands in the sea.

It was reportedly the first time that an American warship had challenged China’s claims over the two land features and their surrounding waters in a single operation.

An aerial photo of the Fiery Cross Reef, known in China as Yongshu Reef, released by the Chinese military. Photo: PLA Daily

Colonel Li Huamin, spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, lashed out at the US for “acting as a hegemony (sic) in ignorance of international laws and rules.”

He warned the US against such “provocative actions” to avoid any “unpredictable incident.”

“Our troops will take all necessary measures to resolutely defend national sovereignty and security and firmly safeguard the peace and stability in the South China Sea,” the military spokesman added.

The Pentagon, for its part, was quick to justify its latest FONOPs, which have steadily increased in frequency under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Reann Mommsen, a spokeswoman for the US 7th Fleet, maintained that “all operations are designed in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.”

In July 2016, an arbitral tribunal at The Hague constituted under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) invalidated China’s so-called “nine-dash line” map which effectively lays claim to as much as 90% of the South China Sea.

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The landmark ruling, which favored certain Philippine claims over China’s in the South China Sea, also censured Beijing’s expansive and ecologically damaging reclamation activities and coercive actions in the maritime area.

China has refused to abide by the ruling, which lacked an enforcement mechanism. The US, meanwhile, maintains that its FONOPs are consistent with the UNCLOS and the arbitral tribunal’s international law-based verdict.

By sailing within 12 nautical miles of the artificially created islands, the Pentagon is directly challenging China’s ownership of the contested features and their surrounding waters and resources.

At the same time, there are signs Washington is becoming increasingly worried by China’s rapidly rising military might and the fast-rising cost of countering and containing its maritime ambitions.

“The stakes of the challenge of conflict with China … are formidable,” said Chad Sbragia, the US’s deputy assistant secretary of defence for China. “This is a long-term process. We have to be agile, smart.”

Testifying in February before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, the Pentagon official maintained that the US needs to “build and deploy a more lethal, resilient joint force” to counter China’s rising military capabilities.

Growing frictions with longtime allies are adding to America’s strategic worries.

A Philippine naval officer stands guard during the arrival of American missile destroyer USS Chung Hoon before US-Philippine joint naval military exercises in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis/Getty Images

The Philippines’ decision last month to abrogate its decades-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, a pact that allows for the positioning of US troops and equipment on Philippine soil, is of particular concern.

The move, if indeed implemented by August this year, would significantly undercut America’s ability to project power into the western region of the South China Sea.

Sbragia, for his part, noted that Manila’s move came as no surprise. “It’s a competition,” the official said. “We have to be very clear-eyed. These countries are coming under increasing pressure [by China].”

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