The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) has confirmed it intercepted 16 Chinese warplanes that had allegedly entered its airspace on May 31.
According to RMAF, the Air Defence Centre in Sarawak spotted the 16 PLA Air Force planes’ “suspicious” flight around 11.53 am. The Chinese planes were seen entering the Malaysian Maritime Zone (ZMM) at 333 miles per hour cluster between 23,000 and 27,000 feet above the high-water-mark.
The foreign ministry of Malaysia said on June 1 it would summon China’s envoy to explain the “intrusion” by 16 air force planes into its airspace.
“The Ministry will issue a diplomatic note of protest against the intrusion to the Government of the People’s Republic of China. The Ministry will also summon the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Malaysia to provide an explanation regarding this breach of the Malaysian airspace and sovereignty by the 16 PLAAF aircraft,” a statement read.
“The air force planes were flying in tactical formation,” Malaysian Air Force said in a statement.
After being told to turn back by the Malaysian Air Traffic Control, the combat aircraft failed to respond; they rather advanced towards Sarawak River. The RMAF then dispatched Hawk 208 fighter jets from Labuan Air Base’s 6th Squadron to intercept those planes, according to media reports.
The Chinese PLAAF jets were Ilyushin Il-76 and Xian Y-20 strategic transport planes that can perform a variety of operations.
Around 1.33 pm, RMAF scrambled several jets to intercept the Chinese planes as they infiltrated national airspace to conduct a concrete identification.
“They were flying over Singapore’s FIR (Flight Information Region – a section of Indonesian airspace managed by Singapore) before entering Malaysia maritime zone and continued to pass the Kota Kinabalu FIR to Sarawak coastal areas,” RMAF chief, General Tan Sri Ackbal Abdul Samad, was quoted as saying by media.
“Their flight path changed above a small island called Beting Patinggi Ali, which is on Malaysian soil off the coast of Sarawak,” he added. The RMAF stated that the Chinese planes were flying in formation “in-trail” at a distance of 60 nautical miles from each other.
The RMAF went on to say that its actions were guided by the country’s legislation, as well as the International Civil Aviation Organization’s international rules of engagement and the National Air Defense Strategy.
“This incident is a serious matter that threatens national sovereignty and aviation safety, … The foreign ministry has taken note of this through the defense ministry,” the statement added.
Continued Violations In South China Sea
Various media reports suggest, between 2016 and 2019, the Chinese coast guard and naval ships entered the Malaysian territorial waters as many as 89 times. These violations took place in the South China Sea, a highly contested region and also an important global maritime trade route.
China claims the whole of South China as its territory, drawing ire from littoral states such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
Last year, a Chinese survey ship and a Malaysian oil exploration vessel had a month-long standoff within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines has been protesting for months over the presence of hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which it claims are staffed by Chinese militia. The complaints have mainly gone unheeded in China.
China’s aggressive and expansionist maneuvers from the Himalayas to the East and South China Seas have put it at the loggerheads with many neighbors and are creating geopolitical unrest in the Asia-Pacific.