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Why It Matters

Chinese boats in Malaysian waters: Saga raises concern

Malaysia took a week to confirm that some 100 fishing boats from China were in its waters off Sarawak, possibly due to the delicacy with which it has to manage its relations with the Asian powerhouse that wields wide influence over the country's economy.

While Malaysia's maritime authorities had repeatedly rung alarm bells that the boats were in the country's exclusive economic zone, the navy insisted it had detected no such vessels.

Confusion reigned for days until the Foreign Ministry finally confirmed on Thursday that the boats were indeed in the hotly disputed South China Sea area and were escorted by two Chinese coast guard vessels. The Chinese ambassador was duly summoned.

The incident reflected poorly on a key priority of Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration - national security. Having talked tough about protecting the Sabah coast from Filipino intruders and the need for various controversial security laws to keep the peace, Putrajaya came across as oddly incapable of detecting an armada of large foreign fishing boats.

The episode raises questions as to what might account for the navy's blindness - a matter of looking at the wrong spot or an unwillingness to offend China, whose influence looms large. One of its firms is paying RM9.83 billion (S$3.41 billion) to buy the power assets of troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, while another is promising to build a US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion) regional centre in a 1MDB township. China's Ambassador Huang Huikang in February donated RM40,000 to eight Chinese primary schools in Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein's Johor constituency.

Whatever the cause, a concern is that the mixed messages on the intrusion will only encourage more maritime adventurism by Beijing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'KL boats saga raises concerns'. Print Edition | Subscribe