The Malaysian Foreign Ministry has said it will lodge a diplomatic protest over 16 Chinese military transport planes that violated Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) while conducting “suspicious” activity over the contested South China Sea.
Malaysia’s air force said it was forced to scramble jets on Monday to conduct visual confirmation after the planes flew within the country’s EEZ, 60 nautical miles (111 kilometres) off the coast of Sarawak state of Malaysian Borneo.
The Chinese planes did not contact the regional air traffic controller despite being instructed several times, the air force said.
Malaysia’s air force said the planes, comprising Ilyushin il-76 and Xian Y-20 strategic transporters, had travelled in an “in-trail” tactical formation at altitudes of between 23,000 and 27,000 feet.
“This incident is a serious threat to national sovereignty and flight safety due to the air traffic density over the airways,” it said in a statement.
Malaysia ‘will not compromise’ national security
On Tuesday, Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry said it would summon the Chinese envoy to explain the “intrusion” into its EEZ.
Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Malaysia would issue a note of diplomatic protest and ask China’s ambassador to Malaysia to explain the “breach of the Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”.
“Malaysia’s stand is clear — having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise on our national security,” he said in a statement.
Beijing has not reacted, but China’s embassy earlier said the planes conducted routine flight training and “strictly abided by” international law without violating airspace of other countries.
“China and Malaysia are friendly neighbours, and China is willing to continue bilateral friendly consultations with Malaysia to jointly maintain regional peace and stability,” a spokesperson said.
Conflict in the South China Sea is heating up
China has been pushing an expansive claim over the waterway, through which about $US3 trillion ($3.88 trillion) worth of ship-borne trade passes annually.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims to various islands and features in the area and China’s coastguard routinely warns foreign boats and aircraft to leave what it calls its territory.
Last year, a Chinese survey ship held a month-long standoff with a Malaysian oil exploration vessel within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
The incident follows months of diplomatic protests by the Philippines over the presence of hundreds of Chinese fishing boats in its Exclusive Economic Zone, which it says are manned by militia.
China has largely ignored the complaints.