Multiple nations claim to have suffered Chinese laser attacks in the Pacific, with the US reporting over 20 incidents last year.
Australian navy helicopters were reportedly hit with laser beams while conducting exercises on in the South China Sea, forcing the pilots to land out of precautionary and medical reasons.
The incident was witnessed by a scholar named Euan Graham, who was traveling from Vietnam to Singapore aboard the Royal Australian Navy flagship Canberra. The witness said that lasers were pointed at the helicopters from nearby fishing vessels as the Canberra was being trailed by a Chinese warship.
Speaking with CNN Graham said, "It's no secret that the broader thrust of China's approach in the South China Sea is to try to make life difficult for foreign aircraft and warships there."
The fishing boats likely targeted the pilots with commercial laser pointers, like the ones used in presentations and cat videos. Not military grade lasers designed to shoot down missiles or act as high-fidelity sensors.
China maintains a maritime militia comprised of fishing vessels in the South China Sea. They are equipped to carry out missions that are just short of combat. In recent months, China has claimed sovereignty over almost the entire waterway, denying foreign naval actions in the region, especially those by the US and its allies.
Graham wrote on his website, The Strategist, that the trailing actions showed that China’s over-the-horizon surveillance capability was maturing. It is possibly being supported by places such as the Fiery Cross Reef where the nation has military installations and an airstrip atop coral reefs.
According to Graham, the constant presence of Chinese vessels shadowing foreign ships might indicate that the Chinese fleet was now large enough to have vessels lying in wait for orders.
Incidents involving lasers and the Chinese military were reported from locations as distant as Djibouti, where the US and China have bases. Reports show that there were over 20 attacks using lasers made against US military pilots flying over the East China Sea between September 2017 and June 2018.
China denies any involvement with the incidents. However, the US complained to China last year when lasers pointed at aircraft near the Horn of Africa resulted in two American pilots suffering minor eye injuries.
At least five other governments operating in the South China Sea have similar claims. China has been aggressively denying access to the region while nations such as the US insist on the freedom to fly and sail anywhere permitted within international law.