KUALA LUMPUR - Chinese coast guard and navy ships were recorded encroaching into Malaysian waters in the South China Sea 89 times between 2016 and 2019, according to the Malaysian Auditor-General's Report that was released Tuesday.
The report cited figures from the Royal Malaysian Navy that was among a host of government agencies audited on their operations and enforcement activities to secure Malaysia's maritime zone.
During the four-year period under review, the navy had detected 238 times foreign vessels trespassing into Malaysia maritime zone, out of which 89 times they were ships belonging to the Chinese coast guard and navy. The rest were fishing boats.
The Chinese vessels were found in Sarawak waters and off the west coast of Sabah, two Malaysian states in Borneo. The report said out of the 89 incursion cases, 72 involved the China Coast Guard and 17 from the People's Liberation Army Navy.
"Audit review found the reason for the presence of the CCG and PLAN was to demonstrate China's presence with regards to its claims on the South China Sea especially in the Beting Patinggi Ali area," said the report.
Beting Patinggi Ali, known internationally as the Luconia Shoals, is located just 84 nautical miles from the coast of Sarawak, but China has staked a claim to the land feature as well as almost the entire South China Sea, angering littoral states like Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia.
The Malaysian audit report came just hours after the US State Secretary Mike Pompeo issued a terse statement slamming China's "unlawful" claims to land features in South China Sea and its "campaign of bullying to control them."
In his statement, Pompeo mentioned Luconia Shoals as one of the areas the United States has rejected China's claim to.
"Any PRC action to harass other states' fishing or hydrocarbon development in these waters -- or to carry out such activities unilaterally -- is unlawful," he said.
According to the Malaysian audit report, even though the Malaysian navy had taken action to chase away the Chinese trespassers and reported the incidents to the Foreign Ministry to issue diplomatic protests, the Chinese still return to Malaysian waters.
The latest Chinese incursion. not covered in the report. happened last April when a Chinese marine survey vessel, the Haiyang Dizhi 8, backed by China's navy and coast guard ships, shadowed a Malaysian oil exploration vessel, West Capella, for almost a month until it finished its job in waters off Sarawak, and left.
"The audit viewed the issue of China's encroachment into Beting Patinggi Ali in the South China Sea as a serious matter touching on the sovereignty and security of the Malaysia maritime zone," it said.
It chided the Malaysian coast guard for failing to do its job properly in this case.
"Even though the Royal Malaysian Navy has made its presence felt to protect our sovereignty in Beting Patinggi Ali, it's role is not that of an enforcement agency," it said,
The Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency, or MMEA, it said, "should be at Beting Patinggi Ali at all times to oversee enforcement and to give the Malaysian government an upper hand in the event there is a claim by China at the international level," it said.
"The Foreign Ministry has issued diplomatic protest notes from time to time to defend the sovereignty of Malaysia's maritime zone, but only five were issued between 2018 and 2019," it added.
The audit found weaknesses in MMEA operation to assist the navy in securing Luconia Shoals.
MMEA was supposed to send 45 vessels out daily for patrol duty at Luconia Shoals but instead of being on duty 365 days a year, it only went out for 265 days in 2017 before dropping to only 25 days in 2019.
MMEA told the auditors that this was partly due to lack of patrol boats, being underfunded and the expiration of contracts to repair broken vessels.
Meantime, the navy had to take over its job to secure the South China Sea.