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In one of the first such confrontations in the busy Indian Ocean region that now accounts for more than half of the world’s commercial traffic, Washington accused Chinese military personnel in the East African entrepot of Djibouti of laser attacks against American pilots operating at its nearby base, causing eye injuries to two of them.
The spat came amid acknowledgement by President Trump of the key role played by China’s President Xi Jinping in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table, even though Beijing and Washington are embroiled in a war of words over trade.
Both US and China have military bases in Djibouti, a small country of a million people where several countries, including India, are jostling for space to secure their interests in one of the world’s busiest waterways. India’s President Ramnath Kovind’s first foreign visit last October included a stopover Djibouti, just two months after Beijing alarmed New Delhi by opening its first extraterritorial military base at the Chinese-built and owned port of Doraleh.
The US base is just a few miles away and pre-dates the Chinese entry. Washington first came into the country to combat the rampant piracy in the region. The base is also used for counter-terrorism operations in Africa and the Middle East, including launching drone attacks in neighboring Somalia and Yemen.
The US now says there have been at least 10 instances of Chinese personnel using lasers to harass US pilots coming into land at its base, in one case causing eye injuries to two pilots of a cargo plane.
“They are very serious incidents,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters. “We have formally démarched the Chinese government and we’ve requested the Chinese investigate these incidents.”
China rejected the allegations, saying they are “inconsistent with facts,” with its foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying telling reporters “You can remind relevant people in the US to pay attention to facts and not to make groundless accusations.”
Meanwhile, the White House also warned against renewed Chinese activity in the South China Sea after reports of Beijing placing anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands over the past month.
“We’re well aware of China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. We’ve raised concerns directly with the Chinese about this, and there will be near-term and long-term consequences,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders warned bluntly, even as President Trump praised Xi’s role in Korea.
Amid this good cop-bad cop routine, India’s own outreach towards China has attracted little attention in Washington, particularly given the every-day domestic turmoil buffeting the Trump administration.
“We certainly think it’s always good when other world leaders are getting along…We have a great relationship with both countries and hope to continue to do so,” White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said when asked about last week’s informal meeting at Wuhan between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi. The meeting was completely overshadowed in US by the engagement between the leaders of North Korea and South Korea.