China’s military aircraft manoeuvre over contested waters off the Malaysian coast is probably aimed at showing its growing ability to assert its territorial claims against those of its neighbours, an observer said.
But the two countries are likely to avoid escalating matters, observers say, partly because Malaysia – battling its worst coronavirus outbreak so far– is under growing economic pressure and has reasons for maintaining a cordial relationship with China.
Malaysia’s foreign ministry on Tuesday summoned the Chinese ambassador Ouyang Yujing for an explanation after saying that 16 Chinese military aircraft had flown within the country’s exclusive economic zone, about 60 nautical miles (111km) off the coast of the state of Sarawak. The ministry called it a “breach of Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”.
Beijing has rejected the claims, saying that its military planes – identified by Malaysia as Ilyushin Il-76 and Xian Y-20 strategic transporters – did not enter Malaysia’s airspace and had exercised freedom of overflight in the area.
A military source had previously told the South China Morning Post that only two Chinese transport planes had been sent, to deliver supplies to troops stationed in the South China Sea.
China has long sought to show its political resolve in asserting its maritime claims in the disputed South China Sea, and has reportedly proposed to host a foreign ministers’ meeting with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) next week.
But mobilising aircraft near the South Luconia Shoal could be seen as a deterrent to rival claimants, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“This incident is more likely directed at demonstrating its new-found military power projection capabilities, contrasting with a Malaysian air force well known to be under-strength and under-resourced,” Koh said. “The Chinese might want to show that they’re now better equipped for escalating dominance.”
China has steadily bolstered its military presence in the South China Sea amid territorial disputes with a number of Southeast Asian neighbours, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.
In April, it commissioned three advanced destroyers including a Type 075 amphibious assault ship at its largest naval base on the southern island province of Hainan. That added to speculation that it may deploy its largest amphibious assault ship – which can carry an estimated 30 helicopters and hundreds of troops – to the disputed South China Sea.
Besides its claims in the Spratly Islands, Malaysia’s involvement in the South China Sea dispute also includes Luconia Shoals, off Sarawak, which is home to significant fishing and hydrocarbon resources.
Unlike more vocal claimants such as Vietnam and the Philippines, Malaysia has pursued a strategy of insulating its economic relationship with China from the disputes – even when tensions flare from time to time over oil and gas exploration off Sarawak, which is part of Malaysia’s EEZ and but included by Beijing inside the nine-dash line that it says defines its territory.
As its largest trading partner, China is crucial to Malaysia’s economic recovery. During a video meeting last month, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin that China was willing to deepen cooperation on investment, manufacturing, agriculture and maritime infrastructure. Malaysia was also among the first to be given priority access to Chinese Covid-19 vaccines.
“Given the global vaccine shortage, China has become an important source of doses for Malaysia,” Koh said. “There’s a raft of incentives for Malaysia to maintain a buoyant and cordial relationship with China and try not to rock the boat unnecessarily.”
Yan Yan, director of the oceans law and policy centre at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, said Malaysia could be “overreacting a little bit” over the Chinese military plane manoeuvre.
She said the claims of the Malaysian military and its foreign ministry conflicted. According to the Royal Malaysian Air Force, hawk jets were scrambled after People’s Liberation Army Air Force planes failed to respond to its instruction to contact air traffic control in Kota Kinabalu, in Malaysia. The foreign ministry, however, called it a “breach of Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”.
Yan said that under international law, air traffic control does not define sovereign airspace and it is not compulsory for military planes – which enjoy freedom of overflight in EEZs – to contact air traffic control under International Civil Aviation Organization protocols.
She said Malaysia, which has been watching Chinese activities in the South China Sea closely, may feel “threatened” if there were as many as 16 Chinese transport aircraft close to its airspace.
“In the future, if the two sides can strengthen communication in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and related activities in airspace, military or otherwise, it may be a better way to enhance mutual trust,” she said.
Koh said Beijing’s muscle-flexing in the South China Sea was likely to continue, despite scrutiny from neighbours and countries such as the United States, which has appeared keen to rally its allies to counter Beijing’s assertive actions.
“Given its economic recovery and growing military might, it’s evident China is relatively comfortable with and confident of its present position in the South China Sea,” he said. “[It feels] that it can gradually eat away at the political resolve of its geopolitical rivals.”