China is laser-focused on maritime primacy — quite literally. Beijing is leveraging lasers and other emerging technologies to expand and police its offshore sphere of influence and keep American and allied naval power at bay. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finds it insufficient to fabricate law with expansive nine-dash line claims and coerce others the old-fashioned way via ramming and gunboat diplomacy.
The Global Times threw down the gauntlet in a March 17 article under this headline: “U.S. intrusions in the S. China Sea can be stopped by electromagnetic weapons: experts.”
The provocative commentary highlighted a proposal from Song Zhongping, who is identified only as “a Chinese military expert” but is, in fact, a graduate of the PLA’s Second Artillery Engineering University (as it was then known) and a former PLA military instructor. Song called for China to deploy electromagnetic weapons, including lasers, against U.S. personnel exercising their legal right to freedom of navigation in waters China seeks to control. The only other “expert” cited in the article, a spokesman for the PLA’s Southern Command, indicated that the Chinese military forces would do whatever was necessary to safeguard “national sovereignty, peace, and stability.” The ends, in other words, justify the means.
Despite the dubious claim of these experts that sovereignty and peace were under assault, their comments represent more than just an idle threat. If anything, the article appears to be an ex post facto rationale for deploying directed-energy weapons in support of an open-ended Chinese bid for maritime dominance. Facts on the ground show that China’s military and paramilitary forces have been employing lasers with increasing frequency since at least 2018.
In May 2018, the United States announced that Chinese forces operating out of their overseas base in Djibouti had repeatedly used lasers to interfere with U.S. aircraft landing in Djibouti. At least three incidents involved the use of military-grade lasers and left two airmen with minor eye injuries.
One month later, a U.S. official acknowledged that U.S. military aircraft operating over the East China Sea had been targeted by lasers more than 20 times. These incidents typically involved commercial-grade lasers and perpetrators operating from fishing vessels, likely members of China’s maritime militia whose primary purpose seems to be to expand China’s sea-based rights and frontiers.
In May 2019, suspected maritime militia vessels used commercial-grade lasers against Australian Navy helicopter pilots operating in the South China Sea during an important Indo-Pacific Endeavor 2019 exercise. A leading Australian analyst who joined the naval drill on its Vietnam-to-Singapore leg noted that Australia had gone out of its way to exercise with Vietnam in the South China Sea, which suggests China is testing out novel ways to register their objection. Later in December 2019, Australian officials acknowledged that the use of lasers by fishing vessels was on the rise.
Most recently, on February 17, a Chinese Navy warship used a laser against a U.S. surveillance aircraft operating over the Philippine Sea. The American P8-A Poseidon pilot flying out of Okinawa was on maritime patrol over wide-open international waters approximately 380 miles west of Guam. When he encountered a PLA Navy Type 052D Luyang III class destroyer, apparently the Hohhot, the U.S. maritime patrol aircraft was hit by a laser beam.
It’s possible to view China’s resort to lasers in the South China Sea as a desire to veto military exercises with other claimant states. But the use of lasers in North Africa and within the Philippine Sea (inside the so-called Second Island Chain) suggests that Beijing wants to operate its military forces with impunity, free from surveillance, throughout the vast Indo-Pacific region. As with other physical acts of maritime coercion — including swarming, ramming, dredging, trailing, intruding, and loitering — China is writing a new big-power code of conduct.
But lasers are particularly dangerous and constitute more than pure harassment. Lasers can temporarily blind pilots and disable electronics. In worst-case scenarios, this could easily cause an aircraft to crash, mainly when the lasers are used at critical moments like takeoff and landing, as they were in the case of a U.S. Air Force C-130 pilot flying out of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. If these incidents persist, it is only a matter of time before Chinese forces cause a disaster.
China’s use of emerging technology is a clear warning that Beijing is ratcheting up the challenge to American military presence. We are witnessing the creation of a new normal in the East and South China Seas, and to a growing extent throughout the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Gradually, larger, more capable, more assertive Chinese military and paramilitary forces are ready to impose China’s rules over everything from who can exploit marine resources to who can conduct military surveillance and military exercises. Beijing seems to want to put maritime Asia on lockdown, forcing U.S. surveillance platforms to operate with much greater social distancing and isolating the military forces of its neighbors from cooperating with others.
Interpreting Chinese Media
Some popular China watchers have suggested that the Global Times article may be a signal that Beijing intends to execute new provocations in the South China Sea.
To interpret the article’s meaning, it is worth considering three points: the publisher, the language, and the re-publishers.
First, Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, which is the CCP’s official news agency and controlled by the CCP’s Central Committee, published the article. However, Global Times’ tabloid format and subsidiary status provide a degree of separation that allows its staff to publish more provocative articles than its parent organization. According to a 2016 interview with Quartz, the tabloid’s longtime editor, Hu Xijin, claims to spend a lot of time with Chinese officials and believes Global Times reflects what party officials are thinking, but cannot say.
Global Times has two platforms, a Chinese-language site (huanqiu.com) and an English-language site (globaltimes.cn). The laser article did not appear on the Chinese-language site; it only appeared in English. When state media publishes content in English, foreigners are the intended audience.
Since its publication, the article has been republished by other Chinese media outlets, including the Chinese Armed Forces’ official English-language website, China Military Online. Subsequent coverage suggests that China’s military community supports the content of the article. Equally significant is who did not republish the article. None of the English-language versions of China’s big three state-owned media platforms — Xinhua, People’s Daily, and China Global Television Network — republished the article. Neither did it appear in the China News Service or China Daily, which are owned by the CCP’s United Front Work Department and Publicity Department, respectively, and typically take point on concerted propaganda campaigns.
Given these circumstances, how should we interpret the article? First, it appears that CCP hawks, including the Chinese military, support the idea of routinizing the use of lasers against foreign forces traveling through waters near China. Second, the idea has sufficient support within the CCP to allow a significant Party-affiliated outlet to promote the concept. Third, the supporters want foreign audiences to know that encountering lasers will be the new normal for ships and aircraft traveling in China’s near seas. In that sense, the Party may not only be warning of further provocations to come (such as the still unseen use of EMP devices), but also trying to normalize the laser activity they have already been engaging in. They want to signal to other states that China will impose costs on foreign militaries that travel through waters that China is attempting to control in the hopes that these costs will coerce states into conceding the area to Beijing. Finally, the fact that the article received limited circulation suggests that the CCP considers China’s use of lasers to be a sensitive topic, and the Party is not yet willing to endorse discussions about their use officially. This fact is important because China’s leadership has not yet tied themselves to the tactic. If they were to decide to stop using lasers suddenly, it would not be a reversal, and they would not lose face. In short, the use of lasers may still be negotiable, and the United States should consider implementing a strategy to dissuade China from fully embracing lasers before the window of opportunity closes.
The Future We Face
Lasers are an emerging technology that is going to become more powerful, more affordable, and more portable over the coming decades. The United States is developing compact lasers capable of destroying drones and missiles. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency predicts that China will deploy ground-based lasers capable of incapacitating satellites sometime this year and more powerful lasers capable of physically destroying satellites by the late 2020s. That means the potential for brinksmanship and escalation will grow. Forces involved in increasingly heated standoffs could dial up the intensity of their lasers to the point where they are burning holes in each other’s vehicles or doing severe harm to the vehicle’s occupants.
Lasers are a non-lethal tool that poses seemingly little risk of lethal confrontation, but that perception could make them more dangerous than lethal weapon systems. The perception that lasers entail a low risk of escalation could embolden actors to use them in increasingly reckless ways that are ultimately less safe than a standoff between actors equipped solely with lethal-only weapons that they are unwilling to use.
As powerful lasers become more compact and affordable, they will proliferate. More maritime militia vessels will carry lasers, and encounters will become more frequent. Militia vessels have shown less professionalism and restraint than their military counterparts, as evidenced by several credible accusations of hit-and-run incidents (sinking a Philippine vessel in 2019, sinking a Vietnamese boat in 2019, and repeatedly ramming a Taiwan Coast Guard patrol cutter in 2020). The risk of these maritime militia forces exercising equally reckless judgment when equipped with lasers is high.
Lasers are not the only emerging, less-lethal technologies reaching a deployable level of maturity. Microwave weapons like Raytheon’s Active Denial System can destroy unshielded electronics and inflict non-lethal heat-related pain on human targets. More powerful microwave weapons, like the U.S. CHAMP missile and China’s experimental high-powered microwave (HPM) weapon, can function as non-nuclear electromagnetic pulse (NNEMP) weapons that disable or destroy shielded electronics. These systems will carry a similar risk of accident and miscalculation that are riskier than today’s boat ramming and water canon spraying.
Why We Should Not Play Laser Tag
Since China is already using lasers against U.S. aircraft, some have suggested the United States should retaliate symmetrically. If China is going to direct lasers at U.S. pilots, U.S. forces should start using lasers against China’s pilots. Recently, the U.S. Navy’s Instagram hinted at this option when it warned China’s military, “You don’t want to play laser tag with us.” This suggestion seems an empty threat, but even if it were a policy, it would be a mistake. A symmetrical response would not advance U.S. interests.
First, the U.S. goal is to persuade China to stop using lasers against U.S. pilots. Responding symmetrically by directing lasers at Chinese aircraft would likely cause China to double down, not reverse course. China’s military, public, and Party cadres are hyper nationalistic, sensitive to appearing submissive to foreign powers, and influenced by propaganda reiterating unlawful claims that the East and South China Seas are the historical territorial waters and airspace of China. If the United States applies obvious pressure, China’s government will not reverse course or admit wrongdoing for fear of losing face and internal support. The United States needs to use a more nuanced combination of policies to steer China’s government toward changing its behavior.
Second, China has already demonstrated to the region that it does not adhere to international law — or, more precisely, it only adheres to law when that law supports China’s actions. It signs agreements like the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the voluntary Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) but refuses to adhere to them. CUES specifically states that commanders should generally avoid using lasers against other vessels and aircraft. Other states realize that China’s government is an unreliable partner, and China’s lack of allies reflects that.
The United States does uphold international law. It adheres to the guidelines defined in CUES and adheres to UNCLOS as customary law. Upholding international law is one of the key differences between the United States and China. It is one of the reasons the United States is a more attractive ally and partner in the region, and it is the key to building the multinational coalitions that magnify the United States’ ability to get things done.
The United States signed on to CUES, and the agreement states that “the prudent commander might generally avoid… Illumination of the navigational bridges or aircraft cockpits [and] The use of laser in such a manner as to cause harm to personnel or damage to equipment onboard vessels or aircraft encountered.” The United States should follow those guidelines because it demonstrates the U.S. commitment to international law, safety, and a fundamentally better status quo. That is a soft power win for the United States.
U.S. Policy Options
Fortunately, the United States still has an opportunity to change the calculus of China’s leadership. The U.S. should consider a strategy of diplomatic pressure, asymmetric cost-imposition, and mitigation. The goal should be to persuade China to refrain from using directed energy weapons against aircraft during peacetime and, if possible, persuade China to sign an enforceable binding agreement to that effect.
Diplomatic pressure should involve two prongs. First, the United States should raise the issue of laser incidents bilaterally at a high level through diplomatic and military-to-military channels. Existing U.S.-China military memoranda of understanding over surface navy and air operations were negotiated because military professionals agreed on the rules of the road. At the same time, Washington has to be aware that China will use such agreements to weaken international law and flout the conventions if not negotiated in a precise and enforceable manner. Laser incidents have not yet caused a major crisis, so there is a tendency to sideline the laser problem to focus on more immediate issues. However, now is precisely the moment when we should negotiate the laser issue. If we wait for China to deploy lasers in large numbers, the cost of rolling the systems back will make China more reluctant to compromise. If we wait until there is a crisis, the animosity evoked by the fiasco may make it harder to reach an agreement, particularly if China attempts to deny the involvement of lasers in the incident, as they have in all occurrences to date.
Second, diplomatic pressure could involve boxing China into an agreement by first establishing a multilateral agreement with other regional states where parties agree to refrain from using lasers against other aircraft during peacetime. No other country in the region is systematically employing lasers against aircraft. It should be relatively easy to persuade them to sign on to an agreement. The United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, the United Kingdom, France, and maritime Southeast Asian states could coalesce around the wording of a ban on the use of lasers to blind pilots or ship drivers at sea
Once a significant portion of the region has signed on to an agreement, the narrative changes. The question is no longer, “why can’t China and the United States agree?” The question becomes, “Why is China refusing to join the agreement that everyone else in the region has joined?” That narrative is far more damaging to China’s reputation and applies far more diplomatic pressure. If proven effective, this method could also apply to other issues in the South China Sea. The same constellation of countries could put together a more ambitious binding code of conduct that has eluded the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) trying to negotiate with China. These agreements, furthermore, could be tabled by Vietnam as it hosts the 2020 East Asia Summit at year’s end.
To apply additional pressure, the United States can apply asymmetric costs that do not involve lasering back. Rather than countering China’s tactic, the United States could counter China’s goal. China is attempting to gain greater control over the East and South China Seas. Lasers ostensibly advance that goal by deterring freedom of navigation operations and military exercises. However, the United States can counter that goal by using China’s provocative laser activity as a legitimate justification to take steps that materially reduce China’s control over the area.
These asymmetric steps could be indirect or direct. An example of an indirect response would be for the United States to respond by deploying U.S. personnel to accompany allies and partners on the South China Sea features or the Senakaku Islands. Since China denies responsibility for the laser activity, the United States could deploy “observers” to the features (with the administering state’s invitation) to try to get to the bottom of who is lasering our aircraft. If not observers, the United States could send civilian weather and environmental researchers to accompany allies and partners occupying the disputed features to conduct research and, as an added benefit, strengthen deterrence against future attempts by China to seize the features.
An example of a direct approach that is not symmetrical might entail the acceleration of deploying longer-range conventional missiles, both anti-ship and ballistic missiles, as a means of neutralizing China’s so-called anti-access and area-denial capabilities. The cessation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty underscored the fact that Russia long since stopped abiding by the agreement, and the accord failed to halt China’s steady missile buildup. Conventional missiles would support the U.S. defense campaign to improve distributed lethality throughout the Indo-Pacific region, reminding allies and partners that the United States will not let China play games with our longstanding commitment to freedom of the seas.
Alternatively, the United States could use the provocative laser activity to reinforce the argument that China is a threat to freedom of navigation and to encourage regional states to deepen cooperation to better stand up to Chinese pressure. Collaboration could also involve expanding military exercises and recruiting more partners for joint freedom of navigation operations — the very activity China’s government hoped to deter with their laser activity.
Finally, the United States should hedge against the possibility that lasering will persist and take steps to mitigate the harm caused by lasers. The United States is already investing in defensive equipment, like protective glasses and visors and shielding that can withstand higher-powered weapons. The imperative will be to minimize costs so that China does not benefit from deploying a small number of relatively cheap lasers to force the United States to purchase relatively expensive protective equipment for all of its aircraft. One means to drive down costs would be to work with allies and partners to buy larger quantities and drive down costs with scale.
If diplomacy is unsuccessful, the United States should be prepared to adopt the less optimal policy of deploying less-lethal weapons, like lasers or microwave weapons, to retaliate proportionately. The United States may not be able to prevent China from using lasers, but symmetrical retaliation could prevent laser perpetrators from loitering around U.S. takeoff and landing sites and reduce morale among China’s forces.
Broader Pattern of Competition
The recent laser incidents and the prospect of increasingly risky events in the future fit the more general pattern defining China’s foreign policy. China’s policies are becoming more overt, more frequent, and more dangerous. China is increasingly relying on a malign approach to competition that is defined by coercion and “riskfare.” In a recent report, called Total Competition, we described how all of China’s policies fit together into a cohesive strategy and how the United States should respond. The United States needs a comprehensive strategy to outcompete China and to change China’s calculus when it comes to coercive behaviors, like the use of lasers.
The U.S. Navy’s Instagram warned that China would not enjoy playing laser tag with the United States. That was a witty post but should not foreshadow real U.S. policy. China is not playing games in the Indo-Pacific. The United States needs to implement a comprehensive competitive strategy that proactively outmaneuvers China’s government and leverages U.S. strengths. Until policymakers do, they may as well spend their time playing laser tag while the rest of us watch the Indo-Pacific gradually slip into China’s control.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is the Asia-Pacific Security Chair at the Hudson Institute.
Ryan D. Neuhard is a Research Associate at the Hudson Institute.