China ships patrol Malaysian territory despite better ties

unnamed (7)KUALA LUMPUR: Despite the great relations between China and Malaysia, Chinese coastguard vessels continue to maintain a presence around the Luconia Shoals, claimed by Malaysia, in the South China Sea.

The irony is that Malaysia last November said it had agreed to buy four littoral mission ships from China to patrol the very sea into which the Chinese vessels are intruding.

The Guardian reported that during the first two months of 2017, three Chinese ships patrolled the Luconia Shoals, an area that is 145km from Sarawak and more than 1,600km from mainland China.

The Guardian report said the ships were tracked by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) , part of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the non-profit Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS).

The US-based groups said the patrols were not unusual and that they were consistent with regular rotations of up to 11 China patrol ships Amti had traced in the area since late 2015.

The Guardian quoted Amti and C4ADS as saying that in January and February this year, only one Malaysian government vessel patrolled the shoals, and that it came as close as four miles to a Chinese ship, indicating that its purpose was likely to monitor the Chinese vessel.

The Guardian said Malaysia’s ministry of defence did not respond to a request for comment.

There have been reports in the past few years of China coastguard vessels intruding into Malaysian waters around the shoals and chasing away Malaysian fishermen. Malaysia has, in the past, registered diplomatic protests with China over these incidents.

Although Prime Minister Najib Razak has taken Malaysia closer to China, and trade and business have increased tremendously, the dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea, including the Luconia Shoals and the Spratly Islands, remains a sore point in relations.

The report said, following protests from Malaysia, the Chinese vessels were said to have withdrawn in late 2015 but that Amti and C4ADS said “it appears that Chinese ships returned almost immediately”.

In March 2016, Malaysia summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain why a large number of China-flagged boats were in Malaysian waters.

Last month, Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said Malaysia’s stand was that “all geographical aspects or maritime features which are within Malaysia’s maritime jurisdiction belong to Malaysia”, a clear indication that it rejects China’s claim on the Luconia Shoals.

The Guardian report said China’s presence so far away showed the extent of Beijing’s military ambitions and that, apart from further antagonising Southeast Asian countries, it could even trigger a potentially explosive foreign policy crisis with US president Donald Trump.

It noted that China had spent years reclaiming reefs, and last month completed three major military bases in the region that have naval, air, radar and missile-defence facilities.

The issue, the report said, was expected to be high on the agenda during a meeting between Trump and China’s president Xi Jinping, who visits the US on Thursday.