Malaysia wary of raising tensions over boats

Defence minister confident the issue can be resolved bilaterally due to strong China ties

Malaysian Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Malaysia yesterday indicated its reluctance to escalate tensions near the South China Sea over dozens of allegedly Chinese fishing boats found in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he is confident that if the sightings were confirmed, the issue "can be resolved bilaterally" with China, as their relationship is strong.

Asked about the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) saying last Saturday that it had detected 82 foreign fishing boats in Malaysian waters off Sarawak, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin said: "That needs to be verified because we do not want things to spiral into a situation, because of sensationalism and emotions."

He dismissed the need to involve the military on this issue. "I don't think we want to send warships if it is true at all, to chase fishing boats away," he told reporters.

MMEA director-general Ahmad Puzi Ab Kahar was quoted by Bernama as saying that it was unable to confirm the origin of the boats as they lacked identifying factors such as flags or panel numbers. Last week, reports emerged that some 100 fishing boats were in Malaysia's EEZ. Attempts to communicate with the boats via marine radio also went unanswered.

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 had maintained that the fishing boat was "in traditional Chinese fishing grounds".

Indonesian lawmakers last week called for a military base to be built in the Natunas to boost defence in the country's central region.

Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said in December that Jakarta plans to deploy a fleet of jet fighters and increase navy vessels and troops in the Natunas, to boost the defence of central Indonesia.

Meanwhile, media in Taiwan reported a second incident last Saturday, where a Taiwanese fishing boat in the Strait of Malacca was allegedly stopped by an Indonesian vessel. The fishermen claimed they had to pay a "bribe" for the boat to be released.

The first occurred recently when an Indonesian patrol boat fired at two Taiwanese boats. No one was hurt, but the vessels were damaged.

Asked about the second incident, Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Ms Eleanor Wang, told The Straits Times that its representative office in Jakarta is pressing Indonesia for answers. Asked whether the Indonesian officials had indeed asked for a US$300 (S$400) bribe, as reported by Taiwanese media, she said that this cannot yet be confirmed.

"Regarding the first incident, the use of brute force by the Indonesians was inappropriate and we hope that Jakarta can revert to us soon with a full accounting of what happened and why. Our stance is clear - due process must be respected," the spokesman said. "We will continue to communicate with Indonesia."

• Additional reporting by Li Xueying in Hong Kong

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 28, 2016, with the headline Malaysia wary of raising tensions over boats. Subscribe