A screengrab of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (L) and Malaysian leader Muhyiddin Yassin (R) attending a video conference on 21 May 2021. (Screengrab: Muhyiddin Yassin, Facebook)

PLA Overflight near Malaysian Airspace: A Precarious Provocation

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China’s deployment of People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft near Malaysia’s air space last month smacks of hypocrisy and creeping hegemony. Beijing may not be as benevolent as it wants smaller states to believe.

On 31 May 2021, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said he wanted China to have “a credible, lovable, and respectable image”, stressing China must expand its circle of friends in international public opinion. To many Malaysians, however, the comments smacked of irony. That same day, 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft flew into airspace 40-60 nautical miles off Malaysia’s Sarawakian coast. The overflight prompted the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) to scramble Hawk light combat jets to intercept the aircraft. In a departure from Malaysia’s typically quiet approach, the RMAF issued a press release publicising the incident, followed by the Malaysian Foreign Minister’s statement condemning China’s act as a “breach of Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”. Meanwhile, nearly 300 Chinese militia vessels were reported in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in March-May. These acts undermine China’s credibility and add anxiety among smaller states.

While China claims that its military aircraft exercised the freedom of overflight according to international law, this particular incident is puzzling. To begin with, China’s position is hypocritical: for years, Beijing has protested US military overflights in its EEZ. In addition, sending a squadron of aircraft flying in a tactical in-trail formation off a sovereign nation’s coast while not responding to communication requests is an overtly provocative act. The overflight is particularly galling, given that Malaysia was the first ASEAN state to establish diplomatic ties with China and among the first states to dispatch a delegation to Beijing when China was isolated after the 1989 Tiananmen Incident. Malaysia has actively involved China in the ASEAN-China dialogue process, jointly promoted East Asian institution-building, and enthusiastically embraced Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. Although it is a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, Malaysia’s position vis-à-vis China has been non-confrontational, in contrast to Vietnam and others’ more defiant approaches. Observers are perplexed that the overflight took place on the 47th anniversary of Malaysia-China ties and the eve of RMAF Day. On 21 May, just days before the PLAAF overflight, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Malaysian leader Muhyiddin Yassin pledged to deepen bilateral cooperation in a video conference. 

One thing is clear: The incursion has sparked fundamental rethinking within the Malaysian establishment about the country’s China policy. The Sarawak State government and political elites in Sabah and the Opposition are now demanding that Putrajaya take a stronger position on the South China Sea to ensure such incidents will not recur. 

It remains a matter of conjecture whether the overflight was a PLA-orchestrated move to probe Malaysia’s air defence and response capabilities. Some said China might be testing Malaysia’s political resolve, while others contended Beijing was demonstrating it can thwart Malaysia’s ability to “defend its frontier Bornean states”. Yet others interpreted the move as Beijing’s unhappiness with Malaysia’s defence ties with the United States. While these are plausible explanations, China’s action probably had more to do with deterring Malaysia from exploiting offshore oil and gas resources in a part of the South China Sea that Beijing regards as falling within its controversial “nine-dash line”. The same motive led to China’s regular presence in the Malaysian maritime zone in recent years, with 89 incursions by Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels from 2016-2019, especially around the Beting Patinggi Ali (BPA) or South Luconia Shoals (Malaysia defines this zone as its internal waters, territorial sea, continental shelf, EEZ and Malaysian fisheries waters. It also includes airspace over the zone). In January-May 2020, there was a months-long “standoff” involving Malaysian, Chinese, and Vietnamese ships over Malaysia’s energy exploration in waters claimed by the three countries.

Several indicators suggest that the PLAAF overflight was aimed at deterring Malaysia from undertaking operations in Kasawari, a giant offshore gas development project located 35km from the BPA. The project involves an area that contains approximately three trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas resources. During the third week of May, Petronas Carigali — the project developer and a subsidiary of Petronas — transported substructures, piles, and conductors from Johor Port to Miri Anchorage. Petronas Carigali was reportedly gearing up to install an offshore drilling platform at the Kasawari gas field in early June. 

The PLAAF deployment has left the impression that China’s “show of presence” approach in the disputed areas is escalating into a “show of force”. Regardless of China’s motives, the PLAAF incident has increased Malaysia’s threat perception of China. This would likely push Malaysia to strengthen its longstanding defence partnerships with the United States, Australia, and other powers, even while Malaysia keeps its strategic equidistance position. Thus far, Malaysia has pragmatically maintained stable relations with China, its largest trading partner since 2009. Both sides are trying to prevent the situation from deteriorating. After the PLAAF overflight, Petronas continued its Kasawari project, but the platform construction is low-key. A Malaysian naval ship is shadowing a CCG vessel, but Malaysian military aircraft are not flying over the gas field. While the CCG vessel continues to issue orders to halt operations through Marine Channel 16 and their loud hailers, they have taken no other coercive actions. It remains unclear whether this will last and for how long.

One thing is clear: The incursion has sparked fundamental rethinking within the Malaysian establishment about the country’s China policy. The Sarawak State government and political elites in Sabah and the Opposition are now demanding that Putrajaya take a stronger position on the South China Sea to ensure such incidents will not recur. 

China’s precarious and self-defeating provocation reminds Malaysia and all other states in the region that a rising power has the capability of harming smaller states, even as China’s leader pledges to do otherwise. China may consider its show of force as a small measure of “subduing without fighting” (不战而屈人之兵), the supreme strategy in its art of war. By flexing its muscles at a smaller neighbour, China has convinced everyone it is not as “benevolent” as it wants others to believe — particularly at a time when many states insist on staying neutral as U.S.-China rivalries grow. Nobody is in China’s pocket, and China should neither make this assumption nor take deference for granted. Worse, by claiming that the PLAAF was undertaking training and exercising “freedom of overflight in the relevant airspace” — the very same act that China has protested against the US for years — China has displayed its hypocrisy and creeping hegemony. 

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