Malaysia Will Lodge Diplomatic Protest with China over Maritime Airspace ‘Intrusion’

Hadi Azmi and Ken Chang
Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Malaysia Will Lodge Diplomatic Protest with China over Maritime Airspace ‘Intrusion’ This handout photo from the Royal Malaysian Air Force, taken on May 31, 2021 and released on June 1, 2021, shows a Chinese air force Ilyushin Il-76 plane which, Malaysian authorities say, was in the airspace over Malaysia’s maritime zone near the coast of Sarawak state on Borneo Island.
Handout/Royal Malaysian Air Force

Malaysia said Tuesday it would issue a diplomatic protest to Beijing after 16 Chinese military planes intruded into its maritime airspace over disputed South China Sea waters near Borneo Island a day earlier.

Malaysian officials said that the Chinese aircraft flew to as close as 60 nautical miles from Kuala Lumpur-administered Beting Patinggi Ali – also known as Luconia Shoals – which Beijing, too, claims as part of its territories in the maritime region.

The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) said it scrambled fighter jets to intercept the Chinese aircraft off the coast of Sarawak state after they refused to communicate with local air-traffic controllers. The incident Monday represented “a threat to national sovereignty and aviation safety,” Malaysia's foreign ministry said.

“Based on the report received from the Royal Malaysian Air Force, the Ministry will issue a diplomatic note of protest against the intrusion to the Government of the People’s Republic of China,” the foreign ministry said.

The ministry also said it would summon China’s ambassador to Malaysia to explain the incursion.

“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,” Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said in a statement.

Earlier on Tuesday, the RMAF said that the Chinese planes came close to violating national territorial airspace.

The Royal Malaysian Air Force “detected suspicious movement of 16 Chinese Air Force aircraft in Malaysia’s Maritime Zone airspace in Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region and were approaching the country’s airspace on May 31, 2021,” it said in a statement.

Maritime Zone airspace is a nation’s airspace over its territorial seas. Under customary international law, coastal states have complete sovereignty over this airspace.

According to the Malaysian air force, the Chinese planes that entered its Maritime Zone airspace were identified as Russian-made Ilyushin Il-76 and Chinese-made Xian Y-20 – transport aircraft capable of conducting multiple missions.

The Chinese embassy in Malaysia said its planes were doing “routine flight training,” during which they “strictly abided by the relevant international law.”

“According to relevant international law, Chinese military aircraft enjoy the freedom of overflight in the relevant airspace,” an embassy spokesperson said.

Last year, the United States military said it was closely watching reports that Beijing was planning to declare a so-called Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the skies above the South China Sea, where China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have overlapping territorial claims.

Meanwhile during a visit to Jakarta on Monday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said that Washington was committed to “a free and open Indo-Pacific region, including a commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight, and other lawful uses of the sea.”


Malaysia’s Air Force says this map shows the route taken by 16 Chinese military aircraft as they crossed areas of the South China Sea under Singapore’s responsibility, entered Malaysia’s maritime zone off Borneo, and executed a u-turn after being intercepted by Malaysian Hawk fighter jets. [Handout graphic/Royal Malaysian Air Force]

‘Blatant intimidation against Malaysia’

The action by the Chinese air force was intended to intimidate Malaysia amid a huge domestic increase in COVID-19 infections and as the Southeast Asian nation started a near-total lockdown on Tuesday, according to Collin Koh, a Singapore-based maritime security analyst.

“Such a move is not only a blatant intimidation against Malaysia, but also predatory and opportunistic,” he said via Twitter.

A retired Malaysian air force officer said Beijing sent the planes as a test.

“China’s action is actually to test the RMAF’s response to the invasion of their aircraft,” Abdul Rahmat Omar told BenarNews.

In 2016, Malaysia said around 100 China-registered boats and ships were detected in Luconia Shoals. A report by Malaysia’s Auditor-General last year revealed that China Coast Guard ships had encroached into Malaysian waters 89 times between 2016 and 2019.

“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 the University Malaysia Sabah, told BenarNews.

Dizhwar Bukhari in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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