Lasers have been used to target US aerial operations in the Pacific, with 20 incidents recorded since September of last year, according to a US military official.
The military spokeswoman, who requested not to be named, told CNN that lasers had been flashed at US aircraft, and that the sources of these flashes are suspected to be Chinese.
The latest incident occurred within the last two weeks, the official said.
None of the incidents have resulted in any medical complaints or injuries, the spokeswoman said. The attacks appear similar to incidents that occurred in the East African country of Djibouti earlier in the year, when US military airmen were injured by lasers which the US military said originated from a nearby Chinese military base.
At a regular press briefing Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “According to what we have learned from the relevant authorities, the accusations in the relevant reports by US media are totally groundless and purely fabricated.”
The latest round of suspected laser attacks have all occurred in and around the East China Sea, which is home to disputed island chains, including the Senkaku, claimed by both Japan and China, where they are known as the Diaoyu.
The area’s waters are near heavy-traffic shipping lanes, and are used regularly by both Japanese and Chinese military and civilian ships, as well as a semi-autonomous “maritime militia” which defends China’s territorial interests in the region.
The Wall Street Journal reported that military officials don’t necessarily believe the attacks were initiated by official Chinese military sources, but would not rule out that those responsible were acting on behalf of the Chinese government.
Aviation Week & Space Technology, an industry publication, quoted a spokeswoman for the US Marines who said that the attacks had originated “from a range of different sources, both ashore and from fishing vessels.”
As with Chinese territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, tensions to the north have flashed numerous times in recent years over the disputed islands, including face-offs between Japanese and Chinese air and naval forces that have been termed dangerous by both sides.
In February this year, US Defense Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed the US’ treaty commitment to defending Japan and its disputed islands.
The incidents in the region over the past several months echo similar tactics the Pentagon says were carried out by the Chinese military earlier this year, when personnel at the country’s first overseas military base in Djibouti used military-grade lasers to interfere with US military aircraft from a nearby American base.
The official CNN spoke to would not confirm that the lasers used in the Pacific were military- or commercial-grade, but even off-the-shelf laser pointers can cause a hazard to pilots. Aiming a laser beam at an aircraft in the US is a federal crime.
In the Djibouti incident, the activity resulted in injuries to US pilots, and prompted the US to launch a formal diplomatic protest with Beijing, military officials told CNN.
Chinese state media denied the original claims by US defense officials, accusing them of “cooking up phony laser stories.”
Following the East Africa incident, a US defense official told CNN that the military also believed the Chinese were using similar lasers to interfere with US aircraft in the South China Sea.
A 2015 report in the official Chinese military newspaper the PLA Daily noted that “China has been updating its home-made blinding laser weapons in recent years to meet the needs of different combat operations.”
According to the report, Chinese forces have access to at least four different types of portable blinding laser weapons, all of which look like oversized modified assault rifles.
Both China and the US are signatories to the Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, which prohibits the use of blinding laser weapons as a means or method of warfare.
The purported laser attacks come just after a number of US government personnel in China were sent back to the United States for further health screenings after concerns over reports of mysterious acoustic incidents similar to “sonic attacks” first encountered by diplomats at the US’ embassy in Cuba.
The screenings came after a US government employee in Guangzhou fell ill in early 2018 after reporting “abnormal sensations of sound and pressure” which resulted in a mild brain injury.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said earlier this month that they had not found any “reason or clue that would lead to the situation reported by the US.”
CNN’s Barbara Starr and intern Pia Deshpande contributed to this report.