Chinese planes recently breached Malaysia’s maritime airspace, flying just 60 nautical miles from the Kuala Lumpur-administered Beting Patinggi Ali, also known as the Luconia Shoals, one of the largest reef complexes in the South China Sea region.
The incident took place on May 31. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) stated that 16 Chinese aircraft entered the country’s Maritime Zone airspace, which refers to a nation’s airspace over territorial waters.
In contravention with international law, Beijing claims the South China Sea as part of its territory.
The planes were flying at a speed of 290 knots, at a height of 23,000 to 27,000 feet. They had initially crossed through the Singapore Flight Information Region (FIR) before entering the airspace of Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Kota Kinabalu FIR.
The Chinese planes were identified as Xian Y-20, a Chinese-made transport aircraft capable of conducting multiple missions, and Russian-made Ilyushin Il-76. As the aircraft neared Malaysian airspace, the RMAF put its Hawk 208 fighter aircraft on alert and attempted to establish contact with the planes.
After the Chinese aircraft refused to communicate with local air traffic controllers, the RMAF sent fighter jets to intercept them off the coast of Sarawak. The RMAF stated that the incident represented “a threat to national sovereignty and aviation safety”
Malaysia demands explanation
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a statement that the ministry will summon the Chinese ambassador, seeking an explanation for the incident.
“Malaysia’s stand is clear – having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise our national security. Malaysia remains steadfast in defending our dignity and our sovereignty,” said the statement.
The ministry will also issue a diplomatic note of protest against the intrusion to the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
During a press conference, PRC China Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, stated that China’s air force was only conducting “routine training” over waters south of Nansha Islands, also known as the Spratly Island chain.
Wenbin claimed that the planes “strictly complied with international law” during the training and “didn’t enter the airspace of any other country.’ Spratly Islands are claimed by multiple nations. Vietnam controls most features of the islands, with the Philippines, China, and Malaysia being other significant controllers.
Luconia Shoals, near which the Chinese planes flew by, is located inside Malaysia’s EEZ and is around 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) away from the Chinese mainland. Some consider the shoals to be part of the Spratly Islands while others see it as located southeast of the islands. The area is believed to contain extensive oil and gas resources.
Beijing expanding in South China Sea amid pandemic
Collin Koh, a Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who focuses on Southeast Asia geopolitics and maritime security, criticized the Chinese military maneuver which came at a time when Malaysia is grappling with the coronavirus pandemic.
“Beijing is fully aware of the COVID-19 plight Malaysia is facing at present, including the latest MCO 3.0 lockdown being just implemented. Such a move is not only a blatant intimidation against Malaysia but also predatory and opportunistic,” he said in a tweet.
A report released in July last year by Malaysia’s National Audit Department stated that Chinese ships intruded into Malaysian waters in South China Sea 89 times between 2016 and 2019. Despite being turned away repeatedly by the Malaysian Navy, the ships kept trespassing.
The audit department stated that the reason Chinese ships kept intruding in the region was to “assert China’s presence with regard to its claims” in the South China Sea, particularly South Luconia Shoals.
“A similar report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative in 2019 revealed that Chinese coast guard vessels spent 70 percent (of 2018), or 258 days, patrolling the area of the South China Sea claimed by Malaysia,” Ramli Dollah, a regional security expert and professor, told BenarNews.
Abdul Rahmat Omar, a retired Malaysian air officer, said to the media outlet that Chinese aircraft intrusion is aimed at testing the RMAF’s response.
Chinese intrusion into neighboring territories is nothing new. Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) recorded 27 incidents of Chinese planes breaching the Taiwanese identification zone in January; 17 times in February, 18 in March, and 22 times in April.
Last month, the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs criticized Chinese activities in its territorial waters. Manila protested the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the region between Jan. 1 and March 18 as well as shadowing of Philippine Coast Guard vessels by Chinese Coast Guard near the Scarborough Shoal on April 24 and 25.