“This incident may be a little preview of the future,” Sam Roggeveen, director of the Lowy Institute’s International Security Program, told nine.com.au.
Two Chinese naval ships, which included a guided missile destroyer, had been sailing in the Arafura Sea, across the Torres Strait and into the Coral Sea last Thursday when the attack on the RAAF P8 P-8A Poseidon with a military-grade laser was launched.
Dr Roggeveen said the fact the incident happened within Australia’s exclusive economic zone off the north coast of the country was significant.
“It shows how the Chinese navy has become a lot more bigger in recent years. Not just in size but in range. It now has true ocean-going capabilities.”
Defence Minister Peter Dutton has condemned the laser attack, telling Today it put the risk of the Poseidon’s 10-man crew in danger.
Modern warships in the Chinese and western navies are equipped with lasers, Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said.
The lasers are used for tracking the range of a potential target before a weapon is fired at it.
They are widely used in military exercises when missiles and other armaments hit dummy targets.
They are also powerful enough to damage key sensors aboard an aircraft.
Dr Davis said the aiming of the laser was “a hostile act,” which could have injured the RAAF crew.
“If it hits the eyes of the air crew it could permanently blind them and therefore it is a hostile act.”
How should Australia respond?
Australian, US and other western military aircraft have previously been confronted by Chinese naval and coast guard vessels in the South China Sea.
But last week’s incident in uncontested waters closer to Australia is “unnerving”, says Dr Roggeveen.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison condemned the laser attack today on 2GB radio.
“This is completely unacceptable and so we have demanded there be an investigation into the behaviour of what occurred on the vessel,” Mr Morrison said.
“It was dangerous, it was reckless and it was unprofessional for what should be a sophisticated navy.”
Mr Dutton said Canberra sought a good diplomatic relationship with Beijing but he warned “Australia is not going to be bullied”.
“I will write to my counterpart and there have been approaches by Defence into their counterparts in Beijing,” he said.
“We will see what sort of response, if any, we get.”
Dr Davis said the Federal Government should increase surveillance of Australia’s northern waters and consider increasing naval patrols in the area.