Malaysia's maritime authorities are expected to issue an initial report on its surveillance of some 100 Chinese fishing boats guarded by two Chinese Coast Guard ships in Malaysian waters on Friday (March 25), a day after a Cabinet minister flagged the encroachment amid rising regional tensions in the contested waters.
The boats were spotted trespassing Malaysia’s territory in the South China Sea near Beting Patinggi Ali, near the Sarawak town of Miri, on Thursday, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Shahidan Kassim said as reported by Malaysia media.
He said a Bombardier aircraft and three vessels from the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) had been deployed to check on the encroachment.
"Three MMEA vessels have been deployed to the area. The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) assets are also there. The Bombardier aircraft has also carried out aerial monitoring in that area and found a group of Chinese fishermen there," Shahidan told reporters on the sidelines of Parliament on Thursday.
An MMEA spokesman said on Friday the agency was expected to issue a statement later in the day, the New Straits Times reported.
Shahidan was quoted by state news agency Bernama as saying that "appropriate law enforcement action" would be taken if the boats and ships were found to have entered Malaysia's exclusive economic zone.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said at a regular briefing on Friday that he did not “understand the details” of what the Malaysian government had said about the matter.
“What I want to point out is that now is the fishing season in the South China Sea ... At this time of year, every year, Chinese trawlers are in the relevant waters carrying out normal fishing activities,” Hong was quoted by Reuters as saying. He did not elaborate.
China claims virtually all of the South China Sea, while Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines claim parts of the waterway through which trade worth US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) passes every year.
Tensions flared between China and Indonesia this week over the actions of a Chinese coast guard vessel in waters off Indonesia’s Natuna islands.
The Chinese patrol boat forcibly prevented the local maritime authorities from detaining a fishing boat allegedly poaching in Indonesia’s territorial waters. Eight crew members have been detained by Indonesia.
Jakarta has accused Beijing of breaching its sovereign rights.