Malaysia will summon China’s ambassador to protest an “intrusion” by 16 Chinese air force planes over the South China Sea in what Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein says represents a “breach of Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”.
The “suspicious” Chinese planes were detected on Monday flying at altitudes up to 27,000 feet and at a speed of 290 knots before being spotted near the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, the Royal Malaysian Air Force said in a statement late Tuesday. The planes entered the Malaysian maritime zone and were approaching national airspace, according to the statement.
The Ilyushin II-76 and Xi’an Y-20 planes that Malaysia says threatened its aviation safety were then identified by an interceptor aircraft after they didn’t comply with “several attempts to direct them to air traffic control.
Hishammuddin said Tuesday he plans to relay Malaysia’s concern and seek an explanation for the breach of his country’s “airspace and sovereignty.
“Malaysia’s stand is clear — having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise our national security,” the foreign ministry said in a statement. “Malaysia remains steadfast in defending our dignity and our sovereignty.”
The incident comes amid rising tensions with other Southeast Asian nations — as well as the US and its allies — over China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Malaysia is one of several regional nations that disputes China’s extensive claims while Beijing regularly asserts sovereignty over about four-fifths of the waters.
The Chinese embassy said the aircraft “strictly abided by international law while conducting routine training, the Straits Times reported, citing a spokesman. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Stretching from China in the north to Indonesia in the south, the South China Sea encompasses 1.4 million square miles (3.6 million square kilometers), making it bigger than the Mediterranean Sea. To the west it touches Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, and the Philippines and Brunei to the east.
Tensions in the disputed waters have escalated in recent weeks, with the Philippines repeatedly protesting and demanding that Chinese vessels leave areas it said are within its jurisdiction. On Saturday, it protested what it said was China’s “incessant deployment, prolonged presence and illegal activities around Thitu Island.
The Philippines has also objected to China’s fishing moratorium in the South China Sea saying the annual fishing ban extends far beyond China’s legitimate entitlements under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern meanwhile jointly said on Monday they had “serious concern” over developments in the South China Sea, including the continued militarization of disputed features and an intensification of destabilizing activities at sea.
Their statement also pressed Beijing on the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.