KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s maritime authority said Tuesday Chinese coast guard vessels escorted about 100 Chinese fishing trawlers into Malaysia’s territorial waters near Luconia Shoals in the South China Sea last week.
The shoals are known locally as Beting Patinggi Ali.
“It is unprecedented. This is the first time,” Malaysia Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) Director-General Adm. Ahmad Puzi Abdul Kahar told reporters of the huge fleet of fishing boats his agency encountered last Thursday. “That is why we are taking a cautious approach.”
For the first time, the agency gave more details of the incident that was first disclosed by Shahidan Kassim, minister in charge of national security, last Thursday.
Puzi showed a map indicating the Chinese boats were within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone and they were discovered conducting their activities from Thursday through Sunday with the number of boats ranging from 40 to 100.
The boats were spread out within 1,931-sq.-km (745.5-sq.-mile) area.
He said the fishing boats did not bear any flags or registration numbers but they noticed one Chinese coast guard vessel escorting them while another was anchored near Luconia Shoal.
The cluster of shoals and reefs that make up Luconia is located about 84 nautical miles off the coast of Miri town in Sarawak state on the island of Borneo.
MMEA tried to communicate with the foreign vessels but received no response. However, they tailed them as they moved westward. As of Tuesday, the “uninvited guests,” as Puzi termed them, were no longer seen.
Puzi said they could not attempt to board any of the boats to inspect them due to rough seas.
The agency, however, took photographic evidence.
“We will leave it to the Foreign Ministry to take the appropriate actions,” he said.
“We want to send them a message that they are in our territorial waters,” he added.
Deputy Foreign Minister Reezal Merican said they are looking into the matter.
“Let’s have all the facts on the plate then we will take action,” he told reporters in a separate event.
China claims over 90 percent of the South China Sea, parts of which are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told Parliament last Thursday that the ownership of Luconia Shoals was never in dispute.
“I would like to stress that Malaysia do not hold Beting Patinggi Ali as a disputed territory with multiple claims between Malaysia and other countries,” he said.
The alleged intrusion came after Indonesia intercepted a Chinese fishing boat last week off the Natuna Island in the southernmost region of the South China Sea, an incident which sparked a diplomatic spat.
In the past there have been incidents of Chinese navy boats and fishing vessels encroaching into Malaysian waters in the South China Sea but Malaysia has thus far preferred to keep a low profile approach via quiet diplomatic protest notes to its major trading partner.