The United States has accused China of mounting a campaign of harassment against its forces in the Horn of Africa by using military grade lasers to disorient its fighter pilots.
The Pentagon issued a formal complaint, demanding that Beijing investigate a series of incidents in recent weeks in the skies above Djibouti, where China and the United States operate military bases just miles apart.
The allegations, including a claim that two US air force pilots suffered eye injuries during one laser attack, drew swift Chinese denials, China’s defence ministry dismissing them as being “in complete contradiction of the facts”.
The military confrontation between the two powers is one of the most significant outside the South China Sea and the most serious so far in Africa, where Beijing has worked assiduously to project its growing economic and geopolitical heft.
A row had appeared almost inevitable since Djibouti stunned Washington by allowing China to build its first overseas military base, completed late last year, within 18 miles of Camp Lemonnier, headquarters of US Africa Command.
Washington’s fears that the Chinese were planning to mount surveillance operations of US counterterrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen were brushed aside after China pledged nearly £1 billion in investments to upgrade Djibouti’s ports and airport.
Home to 4,000 US service personnel, Camp Lemonnier also serves as a platform for American special forces and drone operations against Islamist militants.
Djibouti has become the scene of deep international intrigue, drawing comparisons with Vichy Casablanca.
France, Italy and Japan also have military bases in a country just twice the size of Yorkshire and with a population of fewer than 900,000, while Saudi Arabia is believed to be angling for one.
Spanish and German troops are also stationed in Djibouti, which is considered of high strategic importance because of its relative stability in a volatile part of the world. It also sits athwart the Bab el-Mandeb, or the “Gate of Tears”, the strait separating Africa from the Arabian peninsular, which guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Although China insists its base is purely a support facility for its “peacekeeping and humanitarian” operations in Africa, analysts believe Beijing wants to protect vital oil imports that pass through the Red Sea from a potential future blockade.
With more than £22 billion of investments in Africa, as well as up to 1m Chinese nationals resident on the continent, China has vital interests on the continent to protect.
Washington claims that there have been up to 10 incidents in recent weeks of military grade lasers stationed at or near the Chinese base being directed at American military aircraft flying in and out of Djibouti.
“It’s a serious matter and we’re taking it very seriously,” said Dana White, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman. “We have formally demarched the Chinese government and we’ve requested the Chinese investigate these incidents.”
Lasers are frequently used by advanced military forces to pinpoint targets but were also deployed by the Soviets during the Cold War temporarily to blind American pilots.
Because of the dangers posed, particularly during landing and take off, an international protocol — signed by China in 1995 — has banned the use of lasers as a tactic against military pilots.
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