Transport planes a show of Chinese muscle, says expert

by AFIQ AZIZ / pic by TMR FILE 

THE visit of 16 Chinese transport aircraft near Malaysian airspace on Tuesday was China flexing its muscle in a contentious area of South China Sea, according to a China watcher.

Dr Ngeow Chow Bing, director of University Malaya’s Institute of China Studies, said it was probable that China was demonstrating its reach during a time of prolonged disputes in the area.

In Tuesday’s incident, the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) scrambled jets to head off the Chinese planes as they were detected off Sarawak, heading into Malaysian air space. The aircraft turned around without further incident under escort, according to the RMAF.

A Chinese spokesperson claimed the flight of the 16 planes was a routine training flight within international air space.

The Malaysian government has sent a diplomatic protest and summoned the Chinese ambassador to explain China’s apparent breach of Malaysian sovereignty.

Ngeow said even if the flight was within international law, it was normal for friendly nations to inform each other of such manoeuvres, especially when it involved military assets.

“Technically it does not violate the international law — however in our zone — our own regulation stated that we want foreign military aircraft to report their activities when they enter the maritime zone,” Ngeow told The Malaysian Reserve (TMR).

“I think it was the first time the Chinese air force exercise has gone this far from their homeland.

“Which brings up the possibility that China was somehow trying to show its ‘muscles’ over the South China Sea,” he said .

The South China Sea is subject to several overlapping territorial disputes involving China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei.

China claims more than 80% of the disputed territory, while Vietnam claims sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.

It is estimated that about 80% of global trade is carried by sea and estimates of the volume carried through the South China Sea range from 20% to 33%, making the waterways one of the most valuable economic areas.

Figures also estimated that some US$3.37 trillion (RM13.91 trillion) worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea annually.

“Surely this explanation would be different from what China has stated, or will be explained when they meet at Wisma Putra, but it could be a possible interpretation that shows China has the capabilities in terms of their military aircraft to go that far, to demonstrate their superiority. That is another possible explanation which I do not rule out,” Ngeow said.

In a brief statement yesterday, the Chinese embassy in Malaysia said the reported activities are a routine flight training of the Chinese Air Force which does not target any country.

“According to relevant international law, Chinese military aircrafts enjoy the freedom of overflight in the relevant airspace.”

Ngeow said China and Malaysia must solve the matter amicably, as failure in the deliberation would jeopardise bilateral relationship between two nations.

According to the Malaysian Investment Development Authority, China has become Malaysia’s largest trading partner for the 11th consecutive year in 2019, with trade valued at RM316.6 billion.

Malaysia has also committed to purchase China’s Sinovac vaccine, which is being facilitated by Sinovac Biotech Ltd and Pharmaniaga Bhd with a possibility to distribute a total of 22 million doses of the vaccine under the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme.

Meanwhile, one firm in Malaysia which is actively engaged in business with Chinese counterparts told TMR that business relationships between both nations remain intact so far.

“We have yet to feel any negative impact on the news and both parties are actively trading, especially on the e-commerce platforms. Business as usual for now,” said a member of a Malaysia-China business association.