Lasers and missiles heighten military tensions for US, China

BEIJING — Tensions between the United States and China have flared on two military fronts as Washington accused the Chinese of harassing American pilots flying over the African nation of Djibouti and warned of consequences for Beijing’s deployment of missiles on artificial islands in the South China Sea.

The Pentagon said personnel at China’s military base in Djibouti have in recent weeks been aiming powerful lasers at US aircraft that also operate in or near the country, which is where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet.

The Pentagon’s spokeswoman,
Dana W. White, said the lasers — which can be used to target aircraft — caused minor eye injuries to two American pilots. She did not detail the number of incidents.


The accusations came at a time when the two countries have found themselves increasingly at odds, particularly over trade, which was the subject of a second day of talks in Beijing attended by President Trump’s senior economic advisers and their Chinese counterparts.

After the trade talks wrapped up Friday, China’s Commerce Ministry said the two sides had agreed to set up a mechanism to try to work through their dispute, though differences remained, state media reported.

The Trump administration is demanding that Beijing reduce America’s massive trade deficit with China by $200 billion by the end of 2020, the Associated Press reported, citing a document presented to China before the talks.

The laser episodes in Djibouti heightened concerns in Washington about China’s growing military assertiveness in a vast region from the Horn of Africa to the Pacific.

The modernization of China’s military has been a core mission of the country’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has recently presided over displays of military might on land and sea and appears eager to challenge American military supremacy in Asia.

The United States also objected to the deployment of antiaircraft and antiship missiles on islands that China claims in the South China Sea.


Such deployments have been reported before, but never before have they been so explicitly confirmed by American and Chinese officials. The deployments contradict assurances that Xi made to President Barack Obama in 2015 not to “militarize” the area.

“We’ve raised concerns directly with the Chinese about this,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Thursday when asked if the deployment of missiles in the South China Sea crossed “a red line” for the United States.

“And there will be near-term and long-term consequences,” she added.

The Chinese appeared unfazed by the warnings. Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, confirmed the deployment of weapons to the islands, saying they were defensive and intended “to safeguard China’s sovereignty and security.”

“The relevant deployment targets no one,” Hua said when asked about a report by CNBC that the missiles had been deployed in the past month on three Chinese bases in the Spratly Islands: Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs.

Such missile systems could threaten aircraft and ships that approach the disputed territories — something the United States makes a point of doing periodically to exercise freedom of navigation exercises within what it considers international waters.

While China has long claimed the islands, reefs and other outcroppings within the South China Sea, other nations also have claims there, including Vietnam and the Philippines.

China’s vast reclamation project, which began in earnest in 2013, shortly after Xi became the country’s paramount leader, has steadily turned once-uninhabited places into fortified islands with airfields and increasingly military outposts.


China’s base in Djibouti has long been a source of concern for the United States and other militaries operating around the Horn of Africa. It opened last year and has been portrayed by the Chinese as a logistics base to support antipiracy, counterterrorism, and humanitarian operations in Africa and the Middle East.

It also happens to be just a few miles from the only permanent US base in Africa, which was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and which is involved in highly secretive missions in the region, including raids into Yemen.