The Debate

Why Is China Attacking US Aircraft?

China’s habit is to flout the rules, but a reckoning is coming.

Why Is China Attacking US Aircraft?
Credit: U.S. Navy

The Wall Street Journal broke a story on May 3 quoting U.S. officials saying the Chinese military is targeting American aircraft over the new People’s Liberation Army base in Djibouti using a high-powered laser. China’s government is denying responsibility for the attacks, but its protestations are suspect and seem to reveal China’s attempt to gain leverage over the United States. China is earning a reputation for hostile, dangerous, and illegal behavior the world over, and this is one more example of why. It may be part of great power competition, but China will end up on the losing end if it doesn’t clean up its act.

It should be obvious to China that interfering with pilots’ operation of their aircraft is a deadly game, a course that all too easily leads to crashed planes and lost lives. Still, China denies the accusation, saying the United States has been “cooking up phony laser stories” and making “groundless accusations” that are “totally inconsistent with facts.”

But such protestations only reveal China’s hand: an innocent party would condemn the lasing, affirm support for international standards of conduct, and offer to help get to the bottom of a problem originating from a Chinese base. Instead, Chinese interlocutors offer excuses, such as “foreign military reconnaissance planes flying over China’s Djibouti outpost,” the lack of “a proper communication mechanism” between bases, or the laser being to “scare off birds” or “disrupt possible spy drones.” Such speculations at best reveal a lack of discipline in the safe use of laser technology.

Most duplicitous of all was Chinese experts’ reminder of China’s accession to the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which bans lasers that cause permanent blindness. Although China’s lazing attacks on U.S. aircraft have yet to inflict permanent blindness, it is obvious that any blinding or other significant attack on those piloting aircraft is a hostile act.

China’s annoyance at legitimate U.S. navigational practices (whether in Djibouti or elsewhere) in no way warrants endangering U.S. lives or aircraft, not to mention the lives of others on the ground. Trey Meeks, a consultant and former U.S. Air Force officer, says the attacks “indicate gross, intentional negligence, as well as complete disregard for aviation safety and international norms.” There are multiple avenues China can take to address any issue it has with how U.S. pilots fly. There is no excuse for endangering their lives. 

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China should remember that U.S. airmen of all armed services have an inherent right of self defense. I suspect it will not be too long before China either starts following the rules or begins to suffer serious consequences for its lawlessness. President Xi Jinping claims that China seeks to build a “community of human destiny.” But unless that destiny includes being cheated and abused by China, each member of the international community will have to be very firm and hold China to the international commitments it claims to support.

The views expressed in this paper represent the personal views of the author and are not necessarily the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Air Force.