South China Sea: Malaysia scrambles jets to intercept 16 Chinese military planes

  • Aircraft identified as Chinese Ilyushin 1l-76s and Xian Y-20s spotted near east Malaysian state of Sarawak
  • ‘This incident is a serious matter against the threat of national sovereignty and aviation safety’, says Royal Malaysia Air Force

Malaysia’s air force has said it scrambled jets to intercept 16 Chinese military aircraft that entered airspace administered by Malaysia near the state of Sabah on Monday, warning that the manoeuvre was tantamount to a “serious threat on national sovereignty and aviation safety”.

China’s controversial nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea stretches well into waters off the east Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

The Southeast Asian nation and other counter-claimants against Beijing in the sea dispute deem China’s claims to be illegal under international law.

In a statement on Tuesday evening, the Royal Malaysia Air Force (RMAF) said the flights of the Chinese aircraft were first detected by its Air Defence Centre in Sarawak at 11.53am on Monday, approaching the Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region (FIR) via an area that is part of Singapore’s FIR.

The Chinese aircraft were “flying in tactical formation” and were detected to be flying between 23,000 feet and 27,000 feet above sea level at a speed of 290 knots entering Malaysia’s maritime zone.

Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft. Photo: Reuters
Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft. Photo: Reuters

The Chinese aircraft did not comply with Malaysian air traffic control’s instructions to establish contact with it once they entered the Kota Kinabalu FIR, and subsequently, the Malaysian air force scrambled Hawk 208 fighter jets from the 6th squadron of its Labuan Air Base to undertake “visual identification” of the Chinese planes, the RMAF statement said. The aircraft were identified to be Ilyushin 1l-76s and Xian Y-20s.

Subsequently, the planes exited the Kota Kinabalu FIR through the Singapore FIR, a chart released by the RMAF showed.

“This incident is a serious matter against the threat of national sovereignty and aviation safety,” the RMAF said, underscoring the density of flights in the area.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has taken note of this matter through the Ministry of Defence,” the statement said.

Malaysia’s foreign ministry did not have an immediate comment on the matter.

The South China Morning Post understands that while Chinese military aircraft have flown in the Kota Kinabalu FIR in similar fashion regularly in the past, those flights were not done with a large number of jets flying in tactical formation.

On social media, some regional observers criticised the Chinese manoeuvre, which occurred on the eve of a national lockdown in Malaysia aimed at curbing its deteriorating Covid-19 situation.

“Beijing is fully aware of the Covid-19 plight Malaysia is facing at present, including the latest MCO 3.0 lockdown being just implemented,” Singapore-based maritime security analyst Collin Koh wrote on Twitter.

“Such a move is not only a blatant intimidation against Malaysia, but also predatory and opportunistic.”

Malaysia was among the Southeast Asian nations that last year rattled Beijing through the use of diplomatic notes to the United Nations in opposition to China’s nine-dash line claim.

A map provided by the Royal Malaysian Air Force, with the Chinese planes’ route shown in red. Source: Royal Malaysian Air Force

In addition to Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei dispute China’s claim as contravening their sovereignty as well as their maritime rights as enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest country by population and land mass, insists it is not a claimant state, though the northern reaches of the exclusive economic zone of its Natuna islands stretch into China’s nine-dash line boundary.

By : Bhavan Jaipragas – SCMP

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