Malaysia has said that more than 100 Chinese fishing boats have been spotted within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Sarawak and it planned to take action against them.
The boats were sighted near Beting Patinggi Ali, also known as Luconia Shoals, about 100km off the coast of Miri in Sarawak.
The shoals are near the southern extreme of China's so-called nine- dash line, according to previous media reports. China is claiming territories inside the nine-dash line which spans 90 per cent of the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea.
Malaysia's Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Shahidan Kassim disclosed on Thursday that the government had dispatched three Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) vessels to the area. He did not specify what action would be taken. "Our Bombardier aircraft has also been sent to fly to that area where they saw a group of fishermen from China conducting activities in our waters," Datuk Seri Shahidan told reporters.
He could not be reached yesterday, while a senior MMEA official declined to comment.
The incident comes on the heels of another near Indonesia's Natuna Islands last Saturday. Jakarta said a Chinese patrol boat forcibly prevented Indonesian maritime authorities from detaining a Chinese fishing boat allegedly poaching in Indonesian waters. Eight crew members of the Chinese fishing boat were detained by Indonesia.
China maintained that the fishing boat was "in traditional Chinese fishing grounds".
Asked about the Malaysian report at a regular briefing yesterday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he did not "understand the details" of what the Malaysian government had said on 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," Reuters quoted him as saying. He did not elaborate.
Malaysia has for years kept a low profile despite being a claimant in the dispute over contested territory in the South China Sea. But it can no longer afford to downplay incidents at sea involving Chinese vessels, according to Mr Ian Storey, a specialist in regional maritime security issues at Singapore's Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.
"Over the past few years, Kuala Lumpur has become increasingly irritated with China's growing military and commercial presence in the country's EEZ," he said. He believed the number of incidents between the Chinese Coast Guard and Malaysian and Indonesian maritime authorities would increase as fish stocks get depleted in northern areas of the South China Sea.
"Beijing and the provincial authorities have encouraged fishing fleets to operate much farther south than before in order to satisfy the growing demand for seafood in China," he said. Mr Storey said port facilities that China is building in the Spratlys will enable its Coast Guard to enforce Beijing's jurisdictional claims.