Philippine Coast Guard says Chinese vessel blinded crew with laser

RFA and BenarNews staff
Philippine Coast Guard says Chinese vessel blinded crew with laser Chinese Coast Guard ship 5205 allegedly points a laser at BRP Malapascua in this handout photo, Feb. 6, 2023.
Philippine Coast Guard

Updated at 9 a.m. ET on 2023-02-13

The Philippine Coast Guard on Monday accused China of performing dangerous maneuvers and pointing a laser at one of its ships, causing temporary blindness to the crew.

Japan meanwhile said on Sunday a Chinese Navy ship intruded into its territorial waters for the first time since December. Territorial waters are the sea areas that lie within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of a country’s coast.

BenarNews reported on Feb. 7 on the harassment of the BRP Malapascua by China Coast Guard (CCG) ship 5205 inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) a day earlier.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has now confirmed the incident, saying that the Malapascua at that time was supporting a rotation and resupply mission of the Philippine Navy in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea.

The West Philippine Sea is the name usually used by the Philippines for the part of the South China Sea within the nation’s EEZ, where it holds exclusive rights to natural resources.

Military-grade laser

The PCG, in a statement sent to BenarNews, said that the CCG vessel 5205 on Feb. 6 “directed a military-grade laser light” twice at the Philippine ship, “causing temporary blindness to her crew at the bridge.”

“The Chinese vessel also made dangerous maneuvers by approaching about 150 yards (137 meters) from the vessel’s starboard quarter,” the statement said.

“This is a step up in China’s aggression against the Philippine maritime forces because it involves the use of a directed energy weapon that induces effects on the target,” said Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law analyst at the University of the Philippines.

“Such action should be considered a threat of use of force or acts of aggression contrary to the U.N. Charter and the Philippines would be well within its rights to take measures to protect its ships and aircraft from such aggressive acts,” Batongbacal said

The BRP Malapascua was just 10 nautical miles (18.5 km) from the Second Thomas Shoal when it was harassed by the Chinese ship and had to alter its course to continue its deployment.

BRP Sierra Madre.JPG
The BRP Sierra Madre is grounded on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly islands in the South China Sea, March 29, 2014. [Reuters/Erik De Castro]

The Philippine ship was on a mission to deliver food and supplies to the troops stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre, an old naval ship deliberately run aground on the shoal to serve as a military post since 1999.

Another resupply mission in August 2022 by a different ship, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, was also obstructed by the Chinese Coast Guard, together with the Chinese maritime militia, according to the PCG statement.  

“The deliberate blocking of the Philippine government ships to deliver food and supplies to our military personnel on board the BRP Sierra Madre is a blatant disregard for, and a clear violation of, Philippine sovereign rights in this part of the West Philippine Sea,” it said.

The PCG sent out two photos showing a green light being beamed from an alleged Chinese vessel. 

“As far as I can recall, these are the first images available to the public that prove such behavior by the Chinese maritime forces at sea,” said Collin Koh, a Singapore-based military analyst. 

“Regional authorities need to persistently gather such evidence and publicize them routinely to create international awareness,” Koh said. 

Jay Batongbacal from the University of the Philippines, meanwhile, said that in his opinion all nations “should agree that the employment of such means against government vessels peacefully undertaking maritime activities within their own jurisdictions should be considered as unprovoked and hostile acts that merit a corresponding and calibrated response.”

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the Philippine Coast Guard trespassed on Beijing’s territory on Feb. 6.

“The Chinese Coast Guard ships safeguard China’s sovereignty and maritime order in accordance with China’s domestic laws and international laws including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the on-site operations are professional and restrained,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said.

While not mentioning the use of a laser, the spokesman said he hoped “the Philippine side will earnestly respect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea.”

Military grade lasers are harmful and can cause blindness if shone into a person’s eyes. Pointing a laser at someone can also have a psychological impact, as laser targeting often happens right before a firing of live munitions.

This is not the first time China has been accused of pointing laser lights at foreign aircraft and vessels.

A year ago, on Feb. 17, 2022, Australia said a Chinese navy ship pointed a laser at one of its surveillance airplanes in the Arafura Sea within Australia’s EEZ.

In February 2020, a Chinese military warship apparently trained a laser on a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance aircraft while it was flying over the Pacific Ocean. The Chinese government denied the accusation, saying the P-8 was flying too low near its warships despite warnings.

Japan’s security concerns

In another development, Japan accused China of encroaching upon its sovereignty, causing “security concerns.”

“On February 12, it was confirmed that a Chinese Navy Shupang-class survey ship sailed through Japan’s territorial waters near Yakushima Island,” the Japanese Defense Ministry said.

The Chinese ship was spotted at around 12:50 a.m. Sunday south of the island of Yakushima.  It entered Japan's territorial waters southwest of the island at around 2:30 a.m. and sailed there for about an hour and 40 minutes, the ministry said. 

On Sunday, Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. concluded his four-day official visit to Japan.

Marcos told Philippine media that he was open to the idea of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Japan as long as the deal is “appropriate" and does not increase tensions” in the South China Sea.

Before that, the president said Manila will consider a proposed trilateral defense and security deal with the United States and Japan.

Meanwhile, armed forces spokesman Col. Medel Aguilar condemned the recent harassment, noting that this was the first time that the Chinese Coast Guard used a laser device against a Filipino ship. 

“The secretary of national defense has already declared or said that the act committed by the coast guard of China is offensive and unsafe,” Aguilar said. “Therefore, I think it is time for the Chinese government to restrain its forces so it does not commit any provocative act that will endanger lives of people.”

Aguilar appealed to both nations to de-escalate the tension.

Opposition Philippine Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Monday called on the government to meet with fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) countries as well as members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) to address the continued Chinese harassment.

“The Chinese government, if it wants to show true leadership of the region, should act responsibly and restrain any behavior by its coast guard, navy, and maritime militia that might further inflame the situation in the West Philippine Sea,” she told reporters.

“Tensions are already high, but what is China doing instead? She is only getting more brazen by the day. Her shameless harassment, causing temporary blindness to Filipino crew members, should warrant a penalty,” she said.

Story has been updated to include a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry and Philippine officials.

Jojo Rinoza in Manila and Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews, contributed to this report.


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