Time to draw line in the sand, China’s latest incursion a clear escalation

If there’s anything the recent incursion by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has taught us, it is that ‘Big Brother’ diplomacy does not work.

It also demonstrates that the political will to deal decisively with this blatant disregard for Malaysia’s sovereignty – a nation China calls a ‘friend’ – is dangerously missing.

While China’s intrusion into Malaysian territory is nothing new – 89 times from 2016 to 2019 – the latest incident on Monday was clearly an escalation.

On May 31, 2021, at 11.53am, the Royal Malaysian Air Force Air Defence Radar in Sarawak picked up a formation of 16 PLAAF military aircraft entering the Malaysian Maritime Zone (MMZ) in the Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region (KK FIR).

The Russian-built Ilyushin Il-76 transports and Xian Y-20s (Chinese copies of the Il-76s) were flying in a tactical formation. Radar pegged their airspeed at 290 knots at an altitude of between 23,000 and 27,000 feet.

The formation entered through Singapore FIR before entering the MMZ airspace and then changed course over Beting Patinggi Ali (BPA). It then flew within 60 nautical miles of the coast of Sarawak. The 16 jets entered and exited the area on the same heading.

In its statement, the RMAF called it an act that “threatens the nation’s sovereignty”.

At 1.33pm, the RMAF scrambled two single-seat BAE Systems Hawk 208s from No. 6 Squadron based in RMAF Labuan to intercept and visually identify the formation. The Hawks are equipped with the Westinghouse AN/APG-66 multimode radar and carry the AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles and a 30mm Aden cannon pod with 120 rounds on the centreline station for self-defence.

These intercepts over the contentious South China Sea are becoming increasingly frequent. China routinely does this to assert its claims over the SCS and exert its rights to freedom of navigation.

The other reason is to test the responses and reaction times of our military. Beijing does this by sending up aircraft such as the Shaanxi KJ-500 airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platform to monitor air traffic movements, and reaction and intercept times of our fighters.

Shaanxi Y-9JBs are used in the electronic/signals intelligence (ELINT/SIGINT) roles. These aircraft monitor our air defence radars, identify their operating bands and establish a ‘threat library’ of radar frequencies so that they can develop countermeasures and jam them.

Traditionally, these intercepts don’t make the evening news. This is why yesterday’s revelation by the RMAF at 5.45pm, a day after the incident, was unprecedented and took many by surprise.

“What’s puzzling is that the statement came from the RMAF, not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And it came a day after the incident. Usually, in these cases, the ministry would take the lead, since it involves incursion by foreign aircraft. The RMAF’s role in this is purely as a ‘first responder’,” a former fighter pilot told Twentytwo13.

A spokesman from the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur was quoted as saying that the PLAAF aircraft were “exercising the freedom of overflight in the relevant airspace in accordance with international law, and did not enter Malaysia’s territorial airspace”.

From China’s perspective, while the incident occurred in the MMZ, technically, it did not happen inside Malaysian territorial airspace. Under international law, Malaysian airspace extends between 12 and 25 nautical miles from the coastline, depending on the contiguous zone, per the Malaysian Maritime Zone.

And while the formation of PLAAF aircraft came to within 60 nautical miles of the coast of Sarawak, they contend their airplanes were still inside international airspace.

“It depends on their exact flight path. Some portions were over international waters, but once they got to Terumbu or BPA, then technically, that’s within Malaysia’s territorial area,” a Defence Ministry source told Twentytwo13.

He added that this incident was “an escalation”.

“We have grounds to protest, as this is an escalation over what they normally do.”

Putrajaya’s response came around 11pm, some five hours after the RMAF issued its statement.

In it, Wisma Putra said it would “issue a diplomatic note of protest against the intrusion”, adding that the ministry would also summon the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia for an explanation.

Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein also said he would relay Malaysia’s “serious concern” to his counterpart in China.

United States President Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’. Nations must negotiate from a position of strength, or at least, a perceived notion of equal footing.

Diplomacy is always preferred, but Malaysia needs to show that it will stand up for itself. Appeasement will never work.

It is time to draw that line in the sand.