Analysts say a rare burst of anger from Malaysia over the flight of Chinese air force planes near its airspace and a coast guard vessel spotted in a disputed waterway indicates Beijing has crossed a line with Kuala Lumpur in its slow maritime expansion. Ralph Jennings specially for the Voice of Asia.
Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a June 1 statement it would summon the Chinese ambassador over 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force planes that flew over a Malaysian “maritime zone.” Malaysia’s air force scrambled its own jets to push China’s planes out.
Days later, a Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency official said a Chinese coast guard ship had been seen 156 kilometers from shore, according to the Borneo Post domestic news website.
Malaysia normally keeps quiet or protests out of public view when the militarily stronger China passes ships into waters Kuala Lumpur sees as its own. Aircraft sightings are less common. It “bends over backwards to accommodate” China because of their deep economic relationship, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
China has been Malaysia’s top trading partner for the past 12 years and a source of investment in domestic infrastructure.
Steady coast guard presence
But Malaysian officials have long simmered privately as Chinese coast guard ships frequent waters in their exclusive economic zone north of Borneo, said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii. The coast guard has kept a regular presence there since 2013, he estimates.
Malaysia drills for natural gas in those waters, which are part of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea. China says 90% of the sea, including the tract that its coast guard patrols, falls under its flag.
The two Asian nations entered into a standoff in November after a Chinese coast guard ship stationed itself near Luconia Shoals north of Borneo, the same tract where the vessel appeared this month. Malaysia says those waters belong to a maritime exclusive economic zone.
Malaysian statements June 8 about the Chinese coast guard show the frequency of those vessels is “getting a bit too much,” Oh said.
Domestic media outlets quoted the maritime enforcement agency official saying his agency and the Malaysian navy were “monitoring the situation closely.”
Malaysia cannot do much against China militarily because Chinese forces are stronger, analysts agree. “What can they do?” said Shariman Lockman, senior foreign policy and security studies analyst with the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia. This month’s tiffs will mark a “really bad patch” in relations, he said.
“Those Chinese ships are always there,” Lockman said. “They come and go but they have a permanent presence at Luconia Shoals. Obviously, this is an irritant in the relationship. It is not appreciated by the Malaysian government.”
Exercises with a U.S. carrier group
China is probably giving Malaysia a “stress test” after it joined the United States, Beijing’s rival superpower, for military air exercises in April, Oh said. The USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group carried out the exercises in the South China Sea alongside Malaysia’s air force.
“This is the Chinese simultaneously signaling their unhappiness to Malaysia and also flexing muscle to the U.S.,” Oh said.
China hopes to take more control over the wider sea bit by bit, Vuving said. “I think it’s another slice in the salami,” he said. “China’s end goal in the South China Sea is to control the water and the skies, so every day they advance a little.”
Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or parts of the same sea as well. They prize the waterway for its undersea fuel reserves and rich fishing grounds. China has alarmed the others by landfilling tiny islets over the past decade for military installations.
Vietnam and the Philippines speak out against China when its ships, planes or oil rigs overlap their offshore economic zones.
The United States has no claim in the South China Sea but counts Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan as allies. U.S. officials regularly pan China over its expansion in the waterway, sparking angry rebuttals from Beijing. The United States passed navy ships through the sea 10 times in 2019 and another 10 times last year.