Less than a year after China deployed troops to its first overseas base in Djibouti, near the Horn of Africa, located next to the key oil transit chokepoint, the Bab el-Mandeb strait, the US military has warned fighter jet pilots to beware of laser attacks near China’s military base amid what the SCMP said were "increasing signs of friction between the two armed forces in the Horn of Africa."
According to the WSJ, the Pentagon issued a Notice to Airmen, later reproduced on the US Federal Aviation Administration’s website, that there had been multiple events “involving a high-power laser” just 750 metres (2,400ft) from China’s base in Djibouti.
“Use extreme caution when transiting near this area,” the notice cautioned.
Quoted by the WSJ, Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said "the U.S. has notified airmen to exercise caution when flying in certain areas in Djibouti" adding "this notice was issued due to lasers being directed at U.S. aircraft on a small number of separate occasions over the last few weeks."
“Lasers pointed at aircraft have the potential to cause serious harm to the aircrew and the surrounding area,” she said.
According to a report in Jane’s Defence Weekly last month, multiple intelligence sources reported the Chinese garrison in Djibouti is suspected of operating a high-power laser weapon to temporarily blind pilots at the base or on a ship offshore.
However, according to SCMP, Chinese military observers said the lasers might have been used to scare off birds near the airfield or disrupt possible spy drones, rather than targeting foreign US pilots. They also pointed out that China is a signatory to the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which bans the use of lasers that cause permanent blindness.
Which, of course, would never stop China from attempting precisely that.
“The Chinese and US bases in Djibouti are really close, so one could disturb the other if the two sides don’t have a proper communication mechanism,” said Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military analyst was quoted by the Hong Kong publication. Zhou noted that China has already publicly demonstrated its use of laser weapons against drones at air exhibitions.
Some experts said the use of the laser amounted to the kind of aggression the Chinese have displayed on other occasions.
In 2014 over the South China Sea, a Chinese jet fighter pilot, conducted so-called barrel rolls around an American P-8 surveillance jet. That incident led the U.S. to lodge a formal diplomatic complaint with Chinese officials and the pilot was ultimately removed from the unit, according to American officials at the time. China’s Defense Ministry publicly dismissed the U.S. complaint as groundless at the time.
* * *
As we reported last year, the Chinese military base in Djibouti is just a few miles northwest of Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent US military base in Africa and home to 4,000 US military personnel.
Camp Lemonnier was established after the 9/11 attacks, and is mainly used as a counterterrorism hub in the region. A 2013 Washington Post report said the Djibouti government had forced it to stop drone flights – which numbered up to 16 a day – from the base due to safety fears and relocate its unmanned spy aircraft to a more remote location.
With the US increasingly viewing China as a strategic superpower rival, the peculiar proximity of the two bases in Djibouti means the two sides will be involved in a “quiet contest” to gather information about each other, according to Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military expert, although neither side “would announce this openly”.
Work began on the 36-hectare Chinese base in 2016, which was to be used a logistics hub to resupply vessels taking part in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions off the coasts of Yemen and Somalia. Weeks after the base opened at the start of August 1 the troops based there started live-fire drills.
Djibouti sits in a vital strategic location, right off the Bab el-Mandeb and close to the Suez Canal, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, and offers troops stationed there easy access to trouble spots such as Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and could provide a base for aerial missions over Iraq and Syria.
The government has been happy to provide facilities for other countries’ armed forces, and France, Spain and Japan all have opened facilities there.
In 2016 Japan announced that it would increase the size of its base following the announcement that Chinese was planning to open its own facility there.
That year a Japanese warship was reported by Chinese state media to have dispatched frogmen to collect information on Chinese vessels that had docked nearby before they were driven away by “strong lights” and verbal warnings. The Japanese side denied the claims, saying the divers were checking their own ships.