Malaysia has said it will send a diplomatic protest to Beijing and summon the Chinese ambassador after the military detected 16 Chinese aircraft in its airspace off the Borneo coast.
The planes of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force were tracked over Malaysia’s maritime zone by the Malaysian air force on Sunday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement late on Tuesday.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the ministry would issue a diplomatic note of protest to Beijing and summon the ambassador of the People’s Republic of China “to provide (an) explanation regarding this breach of the Malaysian air space and sovereignty”.
“Malaysia’s stand is clear – having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise our national security,” Hishammuddin said.
China has been stepping up its military activities in the South China Sea, a strategic waterway that it claims almost in its entirety under its “nine-dash line” but which has been declared illegal by an international tribunal. Malaysia claims the parts of the sea around its two Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak. Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam are also among claimants to the sea.
The Malaysian air force said it discovered the Chinese aircraft flying in a “tactical formation” at an altitude of between 23,000 (7,014 metres ) and 27,000 feet (8,229 metres) on the morning of May 31.
It dispatched several planes from its airbase in Labuan to carry out visual identification of the Chinese aircraft – Ilyushin-76 and Xian Y-20 transport models – after they failed to make contact with Malaysian air traffic control.
“This incident was a serious threat to national security and flight safety,” the air force said in a statement.
China’s embassy said earlier the planes were on routine flight training and “strictly abided by” international law without violating the 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,” the Reuters news agency quoted a spokesperson as saying.
Malaysia’s opposition party Pakatan Harapan said the incident “raises concern” and urged the government to devise a “clear action plan” on how to deal with such activities.
The Philippines has lodged a number of diplomatic protests in recent months over the presence of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels inside its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Last year, Malaysia was involved in a standoff with China after the Haiyang Dizhi 8, a Chinese government research ship was spotted conducting a survey close to an exploration vessel operated by Malaysia’s state oil company Petronas,