Since 2013, a Chinese coast guard vessel has been defiantly anchored in Malaysian waters at the Luconia Shoals – which Malaysia calls Beting Patinggi Ali – in a vivid demonstration of Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea (See: “Malaysia Responds to China’s South China Sea Intrusion”). The vessel is just 84 nautical miles from the coast of Sarawak, well inside Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone and on the southern end of China’s infamous nine-dash line, which covers about 90 percent of the South China Sea.
This is hardly the first time Chinese vessels have encroached into Malaysian waters – indeed, as I have stressed repeatedly, such intrusions have become both bolder and more frequent over the past few years (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing it Safe”). They not only pose a threat to the country’s South China Sea claims, but its extensive natural resource activities there as well as its territorial integrity.
Yet a point often missed is that Chinese encroachments directly affect the livelihoods of fishermen in the area too. Indeed, Malaysian fishermen claim that they have not been able to even enter the area for months, with reports of Chinese vessels chasing them away on past attempts. Over the weekend, Jamali Basri, chairman of the Miri Fishermen Association, claimed that the last time local fishermen had ventured into the area was in May.
“[O]ur fishermen were chased from the shoals by the Chinese Navy boats and now they dare not go near the place to fish,” he told the Borneo Post.
The fishermen have been calling for tougher measures to be taken against the Chinese vessels. Some have urged the state government to step in, including by putting up signs or national flags to assert Malaysia’s sovereignty. Fishermen have been told to report any further Chinese threats to the authorities.
There are signs of an approach of sorts slowly emerging in response to Chinese threats. For instance, at the local level, Jamali revealed to Malaysian media that around 1,000 fishermen and the Sarawak government have agreed to erect artificial shoals along the state’s coastlines. The artificially-constructed shoals, he explained, would ensure a constant supply of marine resources for fishermen.
Nationally, Sarawak Region Maritime Chief Enforcement First Admiral Ismaili Bujang Pit separately told reporters on October 28 that the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA), the country’s equivalent of a coast guard, had written to the federal government to double the assets currently deployed in Sarawak to contend with encroachments into Malaysian waters. Currently, Ismaili said the MMEA has just 11 patrol boats and 500 officers operating in the Sarawak Coast, and there were 70 cases of encroachment in Sarawak waters with 12 vessels seized.
To be sure, these moves – which are still in the works – ought not to be mistaken as signs that Malaysia is departing from what I’ve called its ‘playing it safe’ approach to the South China Sea. As I have noted, Malaysia places a heavy emphasis on engaging with China at the highest levels in spite of its assertiveness and pursuing capacity-building efforts and realignments in a low-profile way (See: “Playing It Safe: Malaysia’s Approach to the South China Sea”). As Ismaili was careful to point out, the anchoring of the Chinese vessel itself is an issue that is being dealt with by the Prime Minister’s Department “in a diplomatic way” with counterparts.
Yet privately Malaysian officials have made clear their frustration with the Chinese side regarding the incident, with repeated protests lodged via radio by Malaysian naval and coast guard vessels monitoring the vessel ignored. And despite Malaysian leaders’ unwillingness to let the South China Sea issue disrupt the overall Sino-Malaysian relationship, there are signs of new moves being mulled to contend with the reality of Beijing’s assertiveness, which seems unlikely to abate as China’s capabilities continue to grow.