Major takeaways on how China is trying to normalize the use of lasers by its military and militias, from Hudson Senior Fellow Patrick Cronin's new article in The Diplomat.

1. China's laser deployment marks a new phase in their efforts to control the Indo-Pacific:

Since 2018, the Chinese military and militias have been employing lasers with increasing frequency, in the South China Seas, the Philippine Sea and in North Africa. The use of lasers 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.

2. The US and allied nations are being targeted:

In May 2018, Chinese forces repeatedly used lasers to interfere with US aircraft landings in Djibouti, leaving US airmen with eye injuries. In the East China Sea, fishing vessels operating as China’s maritime militia targeted US military aircraft over 20 times. In May 2019, Australian Navy helicopter pilots were targeted by Chinese militia vessels possessing commercial-grade lasers. On February 17, a Chinese Navy warship used a laser against an American P8-A Poseidon flying maritime patrol over wide-open international waters.

3. China's lasers pose a serious risk beyond provocation:

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.

4. China is testing the waters with its new strategy:

The Global Times, a tabloid published by the CCP’s official news agency, ran a March 17 article calling 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 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. The CCP is trying to normalize the laser activity they have already been engaging in, yet the article’s limited circulation suggests that the CCP considers China’s use of lasers to be a sensitive topic.

5. China's actions will likely strengthen regional cooperation against China:

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.

China’s provocative laser activity reinforces the argument that China is a threat to freedom of navigation. The US can 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.

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity

Has COVID-19 changed your view of China?