In an apparent about-face, Malaysia's navy yesterday said no Chinese vessels had encroached into Malaysian waters after investigating claims by the maritime authorities that 82 fishing boats were spotted off Beting Patinggi Ali, in the hotly disputed South China Sea.
Malaysia's National Security Minister Shahidan Kassim had said last week that three Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) ships and navy assets were sent to the area after aerial monitoring found a group of Chinese fishing boats there.
But Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the navy chief told him yesterday that there was no trespass by Chinese vessels. "I am relieved that he (the navy chief) confirmed that our waters are safe," he told reporters.
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin had on Sunday indicated a reluctance to escalate tensions with China over the alleged encroachment into Malaysia's Exclusive Economic Zone, saying that even if the sightings were confirmed, the issue could be "resolved bilaterally" with Malaysia's top trade partner.
Sources said that although the boats were not clearly marked as Chinese, they were escorted by Chinese coast guard vessels. But the Defence Minister's denial of Beijing's involvement has caused confusion even among his colleagues. Datuk Seri Shahidan insisted "the boats are always there", and told The Straits Times to "call the MMEA now, they must have answers ready".
Prime Minister Najib Razak's administration has enjoyed cordial ties with Beijing, and Chinese investments have hit record highs, with billions of ringgit poured into taking control of energy and property arms previously owned by 1Malaysia Development Berhad. The government-owned investor was forced to sell these assets as it was struggling to meet obligations of RM42 billion (S$14.3 billion) in debt.
The incident came after Jakarta said last week a Chinese patrol boat had forcibly prevented its maritime authorities from detaining a Chinese fishing boat that was allegedly poaching in Indonesian waters.