KEY POINTS

  • Royal Malaysian Air Force scrambled its jets in response to the incursions
  • Malaysia says the incursions are a serious threat to national sovereignty 
  • China has claimed the planes were just conducting routine flight training

In an apparent Chinese bid to flex its military muscle over the South China Sea, 16 People’s Liberation Army warplanes breached Malaysian airspace Monday.

The planes flew to the vicinity of the shoals administered by Malaysia in the South China Sea Monday, forcing the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) to scramble its fighter jets. 

The apparent "intrusion" has angered Malaysia and its Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein Tuesday said he would summon China’s ambassador over the incident which it describes as "a serious threat to national sovereignty and flight safety," reports CNN.

"Malaysia's stand is clear -- having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise on our national security," Hishammuddin said.

A statement by RMAF said the planes, comprising Ilyushin il-76 and Xian Y-20 strategic transporters, flew within 60 nautical miles of Sarawak state of Malaysian Borneo. The planes had traveled in an "in-trail" tactical formation at between 23,000 and 27,000 feet.

RMAF immediately scrambled jets for visual confirmation. The Chinese planes did not contact regional air traffic control despite being instructed to do so several times, the air force said in the statement.

Malaysia had also released a map that shows the flight path of the Chinese planes. A report by Defense News said the warplanes are shown flying past Luconia Shoals, before turning back 60 nautical miles from the Malaysian coast in the vicinity of James Shoal. Both Luconia and James Shoals are claimed by Malaysia and are inside its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  

However, Beijing has maintained that it owns these maritime features as it is located within China's so-called nine-dash line. Beijing has used the claim to exert its influence over the disputed waterway of the South China Sea.

The PLA has asserted its claim in the region by deploying its coast guard ships near the Luconia Shoals, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which bases its research on ship-tracking data.

China's Embassy said the planes were just conducting routine flight training and "strictly abided by international law without violating the airspace of other countries."

"China and Malaysia are friendly neighbors, and China is willing to continue bilateral friendly consultations with Malaysia to jointly maintain regional peace and stability," a spokesperson said.

Last year, an oil exploration vessel contracted by Malaysian state energy company Petronas was involved in a standoff with a Chinese survey vessel in the South China Sea. 

China had also conducted such incursions in the Philippines EEZ, worsening relations between both nations. Over 200 Chinese boats, manned by militia, stationed themselves near the disputed Whitsun Reef in March, which is claimed by the Philippines. 

Malaysia scrambled fighter jets to intercept the Chinese air force transport planes that appeared off Borneo File picture of a Malaysian fighter jet intercepting Chinese air force transport planes that appeared off Borneo. Photo: Royal Malaysian Air Force / Handout