While Malaysia's navy has insisted that no foreign fishing vessels were spotted in its waters in the South China Sea in the past week, its maritime authorities are adamant that up to 100 Chinese boats had entered waters off Sarawak since March 24 before leaving on Sunday.
The head of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), Datuk Ahmad Puzi Ab Kahar, called a press conference yesterday where he specifically pointed out that "Chinese foreign fishing boats" had sailed westward since being spotted, and that the number of vessels detected had dwindled to around 85 on Monday.
"To have 100 boats, we don't consider that normal. This is unprecedented. So... we have taken a very cautious approach," he said, adding that two Chinese coast guard ships were escorting the fishing boats.
On Monday, Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Royal Malaysian Navy chief Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin had confirmed that no Chinese vessels were spotted in the area around the Luconia shoals. Admiral Kamarulzaman also told The Straits Times that "no fishing vessels were spotted at BPA", using the local acronym for the area.
But Mr Puzi pointed out that, by the time the navy checked the location where the Chinese boats were first found, they had already moved westward. He said the navy radar was effective within a 30 nautical mile radius, whereas the size of the area surveyed by the MMEA and airforce aircraft was 1,931 sq km.
He also said the MMEA had visual evidence of the Chinese fishermen and that they had made catches in Malaysian waters. However, despite efforts to communicate via radio, there had been no response over the past five days as the boats were "on silent mode".
He stressed that the MMEA, which has seized no fewer than 826 trespassing boats in the past, has shown restraint in this case. It has submitted the relevant documentation and evidence to the Foreign Ministry as "it is up to the Foreign Ministry to act".
"We are shadowing, we are not just letting them go scot-free. The message we are sending is that these are our waters," he said, referring to the MMEA's move to have six of its vessels follow the fishing fleet. The MMEA vessels will soon be reinforced with more assets, he said.
Apart from the coast guard vessels, Mr Puzi said it was difficult to identify the boats' nationality as they had no flags and some did not even have identification numbers.
"They took excessive manoeuvres to avoid us," he added.
Kuala Lumpur has been wary of creating friction with Beijing over the hotly disputed and resource- rich South China Sea. Datuk Seri Hishammuddin said on Sunday that, even if there had been encroachment by Chinese vessels, the matter could be "resolved bilaterally".
The incident came after Jakarta said last week that a Chinese patrol boat had forcibly prevented the Indonesian maritime authorities from detaining a Chinese fishing boat that was allegedly poaching in Indonesian waters near the Natuna Islands. China has maintained that the boat was "in traditional Chinese fishing grounds", the same reply it gave when asked about the alleged trespass into Malaysian waters claimed by the MMEA.