The Pentagon accused Chinese personnel at a base that country controls in the African nation of Djibouti of deliberately shining lasers at U.S. pilots, causing at least two injuries. The Pentagon has "formally demarched" the Chinese government in relation to this incident.
First, some facts about Djibouti
Djibouti is a small, east African nation separated from Yemen by the 20-mile-wide Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. China is a major trading partner for Djibouti and maintains a base on the island. The nation's proximity to Yemen, Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula make it a very strategic place for a U.S. base as well. France, Italy, and Japan also have forces stationed in that country. There are roughly 4,000 U.S. troops and personnel stationed in Djibouti.
In February, U.S. officials expressed concern that the government of Dijibouti might have been planning to hand over a crucial port for U.S., French, Italian, and Japanese operations to China.
The U.S. government had warned military personnel stationed in Djibouti "to exercise caution when flying in certain areas in Djibouti," which "was issued due to lasers being directed at U.S. aircraft on a small number of separate occasions over the last few weeks," according to a notice obtained by CNN.
"During one incident, there were two minor eye injuries of aircrew flying in a C-130 that resulted from exposure to military-grade laser beams, which were reported to have originated from the nearby Chinese base," the notice stated.
While pointing any laser pointer at an aircraft can cause temporary blindness for pilots and put everyone on board in serious jeopardy (which is why there are steep penalties for doing so in the U.S.), the lasers being used in Djibouti are military grade.
Despite signing the U.N.'s "Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons" in 1998 along with the U.S., in 2015, a Chinese military newspaper reported, "China has been updating its home-made blinding laser weapons in recent years to meet the needs of different combat operations."
Chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters that the Pentagon was "confident" that the Chinese were the ones behind the lasers.
"Those were two minor injuries," White said. "It's enough that we're concerned, that we've demarched them, and we've asked them to investigate it. It's a serious matter, and so we're taking it very seriously."
What is the Chinese government saying?
The Chinese government denied that anyone on its base is shining lasers at any Americans. Chinese state media outlets have accused U.S. officials of "cooking up phony laser stories."