Malaysia scrambled fighter jets to respond to a major incursion of its airspace by 16 Chinese aircraft and called the incident a “serious threat” to its national sovereignty and flight safety.
The incident took place on Monday when, according to Malaysia’s Air Force, its radar picked up the group of Chinese aircraft near Malaysian-administered Luconia Shoals, a rich fishing ground in the disputed South China Sea, after which it moved nearly 110km off the coast of Sarawak on Borneo island.
Malaysia said its attempts to contact the aircraft failed, following which its air force sent the fighter planes to identify them. Malaysia said the Chinese aircraft were flying between 23,000 and 27,000 feet (7,000 to 8,000m) – the height range that is typically used by commercial flights.
The Malaysian Air Force said that the Chinese aircraft did not contact the regional air traffic control despite being instructed several times.
Malaysia’s foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein said late on Tuesday that he would summon the Chinese ambassador to explain “this breach of the Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”.
“Malaysia’s stand is clear— having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise our national security,” said the minister in a statement.
However, the Chinese Embassy said its military planes didn’t violate Malaysia’s airspace and had exercised freedom of overflight in the area. It said they were carrying out routine flight training and didn’t target any country.
In a statement, the embassy said that during the training, the Chinese military aircraft strictly abided by the relevant international law and did not enter the territorial airspace of any other country.
The issue of alleged incursions by Chinese aircraft has become a common feature in the South China Sea. Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea as its own territory, resulting in disputes with several nations. The area is strategically important as it has some of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
According to Malaysia, the Chinese coast guard and navy ships intruded into its waters in the South China Sea 89 times between 2016 and 2019. As a response, Malaysia filed six diplomatic protests to China, including one in 2017 in response to a Chinese note asserting its claim to the South Luconia Shoals.
Self-governed Taiwan, which China considers as an inseparable part of its territory, has also repeatedly claimed airspace incursions by Chinese fighter jets in recent months. In April, Taiwan said more than two dozen Chinese aircraft entered its air defence identification zone (ADIZ), describing it as the biggest incursion in a year.
Additional reporting by agencies