Did China Vessels Encroach Malaysia’s Waters?

Malaysia’s defense minister appears to contradict earlier official reports.

Did China Vessels Encroach Malaysia’s Waters?

Two Malaysian Lekiu class frigates transit the Andaman Sea with a Nimitz class aircraft carrier.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Malaysia’s defense minister on Monday denied reports that Chinese boats and ships had encroached into Malaysia’s waters in the South China Sea, contradicting previous claims by Malaysian officials.

As I reported for The Diplomat last Friday, Shahidan Kassim, a minister in the prime minister’s department, had said that around 100 Chinese registered boats and vessels had been detected in the Luconia Shoals – which Malaysia calls Beting Patinggi Ali (See: “China Ships Encroaching Malaysia’s Waters: Minister”).

The incident appeared to be the latest in a series of bolder and more frequent incursions by Chinese vessels that Malaysia – one of four Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea disputes – has witnessed over the past few years (See: “Malaysia Responds to China’s South China Sea Intrusion”). And though the director general of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) – the country’s equivalent of a coast guard – had said over the weekend that some of the ships lacked any form of identification, The Diplomat understands that Chinese coast guard vessels were present in the area.

But in what appeared to be a direct contradiction on Monday, Malaysia’s defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein said he had received confirmation from the chief of the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) that there was in fact no encroachment by Chinese vessels.

“The RMN has been closely monitoring the situation, and as the person in charge, I’m truly relieved when he confirmed that the national waters are safe,” he told reporters while at an arms inspection at a shooting range near Kota Tinggi.

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A day earlier, Hishammuddin had expressed reluctance about escalating tensions near the South China Sea, saying that the issue “can be resolved bilaterally” if the sightings were confirmed and that Malaysia would not want to send warships to chase the Chinese fishing boats away even if it this were the case.

Though Malaysia has traditionally employed what I’ve previously termed a ‘playing it safe’ approach in the South China Sea, growing Chinese assertiveness has led the country to gradually recalibrate its strategy (See: “Malaysia’s South China Sea Policy: Playing it Safe”). But as Hishammuddin’s comments illustrate, there are still reasons why some in the Malaysian government are unwilling to take further measures beyond what Malaysia has already been doing as some voices have called for (See: “A Malaysia Pushback Against China in the South China Sea?”).