CHINESE ships patrolling an area contested by Malaysia are likely to cause more anxiety across South-east Asia and risk the ire of a country that has long sought to downplay strategic concerns generated by China's rising power.
Three Chinese ships on Sunday patrolled the James Shoal in the South China Sea, about 80 km off Sarawak on Borneo island, which Beijing counts as the southernmost part of its territory. Soldiers on board swore to safeguard China's sovereignty, in the latest sign of Beijing's increasing territorial assertiveness in the waters.
Yesterday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang emphasised at a regular press conference China's "indisputable sovereignty" of the shoal, but said it is willing to use negotiations to resolve the dispute and is committed to protecting regional peace and stability.
While Malaysia's Foreign Ministry did not respond to press queries, Mr Qin said Malaysia has not lodged an official protest over Sunday's patrol.
But some experts say the move will antagonise Kuala Lumpur - an Asean member with "significant influence" - and might shift the state of play in the maritime territorial dispute.
Beijing is in an ugly territorial spat over conflicting claims to parts of the resource-rich sea with four Asean states, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei. It has a separate dispute with Japan in the East China Sea, over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, around which three Chinese Coast Guard vessels sailed yesterday, reported Xinhua news agency.
The Philippines and Vietnam have been the most vocal in expressing alarm, most recently over new Chinese laws requiring foreign fishermen to seek Beijing's approval to operate in the disputed waters.
But Malaysia has traditionally avoided confrontations as the two states have set their dispute aside in the interest of stronger diplomatic and trading ties, noted Dr Oh Ei Sun from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
China is Malaysia's largest trading partner while the latter is China's third largest in Asia.
But bilateral ties could be strained with China's demonstrations of its military might becoming more frequent as its naval capabilities grow. Last March, four Chinese warships carried out a landing exercise around James Shoal - the first major show of force in the area since 1987 when a powerful flotilla of Chinese warships made its presence felt there.
The flexing of its naval muscles twice in the past 12 months is likely to "greatly annoy" Malaysia, said Dr Ian Storey from Singapore's Institute of South-east Asian Studies.
"If this modern form of gunboat diplomacy by China continues, Sino-Malaysian relations are likely to suffer," he added.
"Kuala Lumpur may have to change tack and articulate its concerns to Beijing more clearly and more frequently, and even step-up policy coordination with the other Asean claimants."
It is not in China's interest to provoke Asean countries, especially when it is also attempting to form alliances in this region, Dr Oh added. "China needs friends in South-east Asia as it already has its plate full with other island disputes with Japan," he said.
Yet Chinese experts remained optimistic about the future of bilateral relations.
Jinan University's South-east Asia expert Zhang Mingliang told The Straits Times relations are unlikely to be affected due to the "special relationship" that Beijing and Kuala Lumpur share, possibly because Malaysia was the first Asean state to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1974.
"Both countries have always settled their territorial dispute outside of the public eye and have not openly criticised each other. Policies taken in this regard are practical and low-key," he said.
But he acknowledged that while Malaysia might not respond openly, it is likely to take steps to beef up its territorial claims.
Last October, for instance, Malaysia's Defence Minister said its navy would set up a base at Bintulu in Sarawak to protect the region and its oil and gas reserves.
Asean expert Xu Liping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said "closer relations" between Malaysia and China compared with the Philippines will prevent the situation from escalating.