Beijing Scorns Australia’s Claim That P-8 Patrol Plane Was Targeted By Chinese Warship’s Laser (Updated)

China now blames Australia for the lasing incident involving two Chinese warships and an Aussie P-8 Poseidon.

byThomas Newdick|
Australia photo


A war of words has broken out between Australia and China following a naval encounter in the Arafura Sea, between Australia and Western New Guinea, last week. The Australian Ministry of Defense accused a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel of illuminating a Royal Australian Air Force (PLAAF) P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft with a laser. China has now responded, calling out the RAN in turn for harassment of one of its vessels, including allegedly dropping sonobuoys in their vicinity.

Two days ago, the Australian Ministry of Defense issued an official statement about the incident, which took place on February 17, at 1:35 PM Canberra time. The statement described how the RAAF P-8, with 10 crew onboard, detected a laser illuminating it while flying over Australia’s northern approaches; the warships were exercising their right to operate within Australia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The PLAN’s Type 071 Yuzhao class amphibious transport dock vessel Jinggang Shan and the Type 052D Luyang III class destroyer Hefei that were involved in the incident on February 17., Australian Department of Defense

The kind of laser used has not been detailed, but reports describe it as “military-grade,” suggesting it had significant power, at least enough to be a major concern. Lasers have the potential to temporarily blind optics and pilots, while higher-power systems can cause permanent damage to both.

“The laser was detected as emanating from a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel,” the statement explained. “Illumination of the aircraft by the Chinese vessel is a serious safety incident. Acts like this have the potential to endanger lives. We strongly condemn unprofessional and unsafe military conduct. These actions could have endangered the safety and lives of the [Australian Defense Force] personnel. Such actions are not in keeping with the standards we expect of professional militaries.”

Accompanying imagery released by the defense ministry shows the PLAN’s Type 071

Yuzhao class amphibious transport dock vessel Jinggang Shan, and the Type 052D

Luyang III class destroyer Hefei. It’s not clear which of these vessels is alleged to have directed a laser at the P-8, but the Australian Ministry of Defense said that both PLAN warships subsequently transited through the Torres Strait and into the Coral Sea.

The Australian account of events leading up to and after the incident., Australian Department of Defense

According to a report in The Age newspaper, the Australian Ministry of Defense photo showing the moment the laser was aimed at the P-8 was captured by the Royal Australian Navy’s Anzac class destroyer HMAS Arunta, although this cannot be confirmed. As of February 11, this RAN warship was shadowing two other PLAN vessels off South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and then appears to have headed south to follow Jinggang Shan and Hefei.

The Type 052D Luyang III class destroyer Hefei photographed by the Australian Defence Force., Australian Department of Defense

The same newspaper reports that the latter two Chinese vessels were subsequently also tracked by the Armidale class patrol boat HMAS Launceston, as they sailed through the Torres Strait.

A Royal Australian Air Force P-8A Poseidon conducts a training sortie over the Southern Ocean., Australian Department of Defense

Today, the Chinese Ministry of Defense responded with its own statement, prepared using spokesperson Tan Kefei’s answers to reporters’ questions on the encounter.

“The relevant content of the Australian statement is completely inconsistent with the facts,” Tan said, before providing further details of the Chinese account of the incident:

“On February 17, the Australian P-8 anti-submarine patrol aircraft arrived in the airspace surrounding our ship formation, and the nearest distance to our ship was only 4 kilometers [2.5 miles]. During the entire encounter with the Australian military aircraft, the Chinese warships always maintained safe, standardized, and professional operations, in line with relevant international law and practice.”

Images provided by the Chinese Ministry of Defense show the P-8 photographed from one of the PLAN vessels, as well as one that purports to show a sonobuoy dropped by the Poseidon close to one of the warships. From the available image, however, it’s not immediately clear that it really does show a sonobuoy.

An image provided by the Chinese Ministry of Defense showing what it described as a sonobuoy close to a PLAN vessel. , Chinese Ministry of Defense
A U.S. Navy crew member replaces spent sonobuoys aboard a P-8A during an anti -ubmarine warfare mission during Exercise Kakadu 2016., Australian Department of Defense

“It can be seen from the photos taken by our ship that the Australian aircraft is very close to our ship, and sonar buoys are also placed around our ship,” the spokesperson continued. “Such malicious and provocative actions can easily lead to misunderstandings and misjudgments, posing a threat to the safety of ships, aircraft, and personnel of both sides.”

The Type 071 Yuzhao class amphibious transport dock vessel Jinggang Shan leaves the Torres Strait on February 18., Australian Department of Defense

The Chinese Ministry of Defense statement goes on to accuse Australia of deliberately spreading false information and making false accusations against China, calling for an “immediate stop [to] such provocative and dangerous actions … so as not to affect the overall situation of the relationship between the two countries and the two militaries.”

The Chinese account is seemingly contradictory, as it calls out Australia for sending a P-8 “very close” to one of its vessels, while at the same time stating that the nearest distance between patrol aircraft and PLAN vessel was 4 kilometers. The provided photo of the P-8, shown below, also reveals the considerable distance between the aircraft and the vessel it was photographed from.

Chinese Ministry of Defense

Moreover, illuminating an aircraft with a laser, whether a military one or otherwise, is clearly an unsafe act with the potential for legal repercussions. Among others, using a laser in this way would appear to violate the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), which specifically addresses lasers that could cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment.

However, this is not the first time the Chinese military has pointed lasers at foreign military aircraft.

Exactly two years before this latest incident, the U.S. Navy accused a different Type 052D Luyang III class destroyer of directing a military-grade laser at one of its P-8As, flying over the Pacific Ocean near Guam. You can read more about that event and the fallout from it, here.


In April 2018, PLA personnel reportedly used lasers to target U.S. military aircraft operating from a military base in Djibouti on multiple occasions. According to the Pentagon, two pilots of a C-130 aircraft suffered “minor” injuries as a result of a military-grade laser. In response, the United States lodged a diplomatic complaint with Beijing.

For the Australian military, exposure to an apparent military-grade Chinese laser is an unprecedented development. However, there has been at least one previous incident in which handheld lasers were used by Chinese maritime militia against Australian military helicopters operating in the highly contested South China Sea, in May 2019.

Overall, laser dazzlers are becoming more widespread, including with the U.S. Navy, and are being issued both as handheld weapons and as far more complex types intended to disrupt and counter a wide range of sensors, including those aboard surface vessels, aircraft, drones, and even some anti-ship missiles. With that in mind, we are likely to see incidents of this kind happen more often in the future.

 A Chinese soldier aims a WJG-2002 handheld laser weapon., VIA CHINA MILITARY ONLINE

With China already very much identified as the key military threat to Australia’s future foreign policy and strategic goals, the latest incident plays into ongoing concerns about Beijing’s aggression in the wider region and debate about the direction of Australia-China relations.

The fact that this latest encounter took place so close to Australia’s shores also suggests a new degree of boldness on the part of the PLAN. Indeed, Australian Defense Force photos of the PLAN vessels involved show just how close they were operating to the coast of the country’s Northern Territory.

The PLAN Type 071 Yuzhao class amphibious transport dock vessel Jinggang Shan transits the Torres Strait on February 18., Australian Department of Defense

Once again, PLAN vessels are fully within their right to move through Australia’s EEZ, but the symbolic value of the aiming of a potentially dangerous laser in Australia’s “backyard” reinforces concerns about belligerent Chinese military activity not only within the wider Asia Pacific but also around Australia’s own coastline.

Update, 5:00 AM PST:

The Australian Ministry of Defense has provided an update to its account of the encounter between the RAAF P-8 and the PLAN vessels that occurred on January 17. This states that the Poseidon was conducting a routine surveillance flight when it detected the laser that was aimed at it. At this time, the aircraft is said to have been 7.7 kilometers (4.8 miles) from the vessel in question and at an altitude of 1,500 feet.

Australia admits that the P-8 launched an undisclosed number of sonobuoys, describing this as “common practice” for maritime surveillance. Notably, the buoys were launched only after the laser was detected and landed “a significant distance” ahead of the PLAN vessel.

The update says the aircraft was “well clear of surface vessels and in accordance with international law,” and that sonobuoys do not pose any hazard to shipping. 

The closest the P-8 came to any PLAN vessel was approximately 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), the same distance as given in the Chinese account.

Australia has raised its concerns to the Chinese government about the lasing incident, via the Chinese Embassy in Canberra, as well as China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of National Defense in Beijing.

Contact the author: