Malaysia eyes stronger response to Chinese maritime incursions

Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency said Chinese fishing vessels breached Malaysia’s maritime borders off Sarawak. PHOTO: MALAYSIAN MARITIME ENFORCEMENT AUTHORITY

MIRI (Malaysia) • Spotting a large vessel off the coast of Sarawak state in March, officers on a Malaysian patrol boat were shocked when it steamed towards them at high speed, blaring its horn before veering off to reveal the words "Chinese Coast Guard" emblazoned on its side.

According to an officer from the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have been sighted several times before around the South Luconia Shoals, off the oil-rich town of Miri. But such an aggressive encounter was a first.

"To us, it looked like an attempt to charge at our boat, possibly to intimidate," said the officer, who was not authorised to speak publicly but showed Reuters a video of the previously unreported incident.

Spurred by the incident and the appearance of some 100 Chinese fishing vessels in the area around the same time, some in Malaysia are hardening the nation's previously muted responses towards its powerful neighbour China, which is also Malaysia's top export destination.

One senior minister said Malaysia must now stand up against such maritime incursions as China flexes its muscles along dozens of disputed reefs and islands in the South China Sea. Malaysia's previous responses to China's activity in the region have been described by Western diplomats as "low key".

It downplayed two naval exercises conducted by China in 2013 and 2014 at James Shoal, less than 50 nautical miles off Sarawak.

And last year, concerns raised by Malaysian fishermen in Miri about alleged bullying by armed men aboard Chinese Coast Guard vessels were largely ignored.

But when scores of Chinese fishing boats were spotted in March encroaching near South Luconia Shoals, a rich fishing ground south of the disputed Spratly Islands, Malaysia sent its navy and uncharacteristically summoned China's ambassador to explain the incident.

China's Foreign Ministry downplayed the matter, saying its trawlers were carrying out normal fishing activities in "relevant waters".

Just a couple of weeks later, Malaysia announced plans to set up a naval forward operating base near Bintulu, south of Miri.

The defence minister insists the base is to protect the country's rich oil and gas assets from potential attacks by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria sympathisers based in the southern Philippines, hundreds of kilometres to the north-east.

Underscoring the hardening attitude, one senior federal minister told Reuters that Malaysia must take more decisive action on maritime incursions or risk being taken for granted.

"When the Chinese entered Indonesia's waters (in March), they were immediately chased out. When the Chinese vessels entered our waters, nothing was done," the minister said.

Meanwhile, Taiwan is planning to set up an international centre to conduct ocean and weather research in the South China Sea, its Science and Technology Minister Yang Hung-duen said yesterday.

The planned South China Sea International Research Centre is part of its efforts to boost cooperation with Asean, he said, according to the Central News Agency.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 02, 2016, with the headline Malaysia eyes stronger response to Chinese maritime incursions. Subscribe