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A Chinese Xian Y-20 aircraft. Photo: CCTV

South China Sea: Malaysia scrambles jets to intercept 16 Chinese military planes

  • Aircraft identified as Chinese Ilyushin 1l-76s and Xian Y-20s spotted near East Malaysian state of Sarawak
  • Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he would summon the Chinese envoy over the ‘breach of Malaysian sovereignty and airspace’
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein on Tuesday said he would summon China’s ambassador in the country over a Chinese military aircraft manoeuvre in airspace near the East Malaysian state of Sarawak that was tantamount to a “breach of Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”.

Hishammuddin’s statement followed an earlier announcement by the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) that it had on Monday afternoon scrambled jets to intercept 16 Chinese aircraft that had come close to violating the Southeast Asian country’s national airspace.

In an immediate response, China said the “reported activities” were part of routine flight training that “do not target any country” and abided by international law.

Beijing’s controversial nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea stretches well into waters off the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

The Southeast Asian nation and other counter-claimants against Beijing in the sea dispute deem China’s claims to be illegal under international law.

RMAF said the flights of the Chinese aircraft were first detected by its Air Defence Centre in Sarawak at 11.53am on Monday, approaching the Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region (FIR) via an area that is part of Singapore’s FIR.

The Chinese aircraft were “flying in tactical formation” and were detected to be flying between 23,000 feet and 27,000 feet (7km and 8.2km) above sea level at a speed of 290 knots entering Malaysia’s maritime zone.

The Chinese aircraft did not comply with Malaysian air traffic control’s instructions to establish contact with it once they entered the Kota Kinabalu FIR, and subsequently, the Malaysian air force scrambled Hawk 208 fighter jets from the 6th squadron of its Labuan Air Base to undertake “visual identification” of the Chinese planes, the RMAF statement said.

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The aircraft were identified to be Ilyushin 1l-76s and Xian Y-20s.

Subsequently, the planes exited the Kota Kinabalu FIR through the Singapore FIR, a chart released by the RMAF showed.

“This incident is a serious threat to national sovereignty and flight safety,” the RMAF said, underscoring the density of flights in the area.

Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft. Photo: Reuters

Hishammuddin in his late night statement said his ministry would issue a diplomatic note of protest and summon the Chinese envoy, Ouyang Yujing, over the matter.

“In addition, I will also relay Malaysia’s serious concern on the matter to my counterpart in China,” Hishammuddin said. “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.”

A Chinese embassy spokesman separately said Chinese military aircraft “enjoy the freedom of overflight in the relevant airspace”.

“During this training, the Chinese military aircraft strictly abided by the relevant international law and did not enter the territorial airspace of any other country,” the spokesman said. “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 South China Morning Post understands that while Chinese military aircraft have flown in the Kota Kinabalu FIR in similar fashion regularly in the past, those flights were not done with a large number of jets flying in tactical formation.

On social media, some regional observers criticised the Chinese manoeuvre, which occurred on the eve of a national lockdown in Malaysia aimed at curbing its deteriorating Covid-19 situation.

“Beijing is fully aware of the Covid-19 plight Malaysia is facing at present, including the latest MCO 3.0 lockdown being just implemented,” Singapore-based maritime security analyst Collin Koh wrote on Twitter.

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

Malaysia was among the Southeast Asian nations that last year rattled Beijing through the use of diplomatic notes to the United Nations in opposition to China’s nine-dash line claim.

Apart from several claims in the Spratly Islands, Malaysia’s involvement in the South China Sea dispute also involves Luconia Shoals, off Sarawak. Chinese coastguard vessels frequently sail in the area despite Malaysia’s assertion that the waters are within its exclusive economic zone.

In addition to Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei dispute China’s claim as contravening their sovereignty as well as their maritime rights as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest country by population and land mass, insists it is not a claimant state, though the northern reaches of the exclusive economic zone of its Natuna islands stretch into China’s nine-dash line boundary.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Malaysia intercepts 16 Chinese planes