Malaysia summons China ambassador over alleged South China Sea encroachment

Boats said to be Chinese fishing vessels breaching Malaysia’s maritime borders off Sarawak.
Boats said to be Chinese fishing vessels breaching Malaysia’s maritime borders off Sarawak.PHOTO: MALAYSIAN MARITIME ENFORCEMENT AUTHORITY

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysia said on Thursday (March 31) that it had summoned the Chinese ambassador to register its concerns over what the government said was an encroachment by a large number of Chinese-flagged boats in the South China Sea.

About 100 Chinese fishing boats were detected encroaching in Malaysia's waters, Malaysia's state news agency and a coastguard official said last week.

The Malaysian foreign minister confirmed that a large number of Chinese-flagged fishing boats were sighted in Malaysian waters, and the boats were accompanied by Chinese Coast Guard vessel.

Malaysia had summoned the ambassador "to seek clarification as well as to register Malaysia's concerns over the matter", a foreign ministry statement said.

The move comes after several contradictory remarks from Malaysian authorities. While the Malaysian navy said that no foreign fishing vessels were spotted in its waters in the South China Sea in the past week, maritime authorities are adamant that up to 100 Chinese boats had entered waters off Sarawak since March 24 before leaving on Sunday.

On Monday (March 28), 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 at a press conference on Tuesday, the head of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), Datuk Ahmad Puzi Ab Kahar, 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.

He explained the navy's response on Monday, pointing 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.

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. 

China claims most of the South China Sea through which about US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year. Its South-east Asian neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, also claim parts, as does Taiwan.