UPDATED: Malaysia To File Diplomatic Protest Following Interception Of 16 Chinese Military Aircraft

The Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has stated that it will be issuing a diplomatic note of protest to the Chinese government, after the Royal Malaysian Air Force announced earlier today the interception of 16 People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft that flew into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. The Ministry also said that it would be summoning the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia to provide an explanation regarding “this breach of the Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”, with Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein saying that he would relay Malaysia’s “serious concern on the matter” to his Chinese counterpart.

In a press release, the Minister said that:

Malaysia’s stand is clear – having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise our national security. Malaysia remains steadfast in defending our dignity and sovereignty. 

The statement follows an announcement earlier today by the Royal Malaysian Air Force that it had intercepted 16 Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force aircraft that flew into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone, stopping just short of entering Malaysian airspace, on 31 May.

In a press statement, the RMAF said that its surveillance radar detected the “suspicious” PLAAF aircraft headed towards Malaysian airspace at 11:53AM local time yesterday. The aircraft were flying in a tactical in-trail formation, with a gap of 60 nautical miles between each aircraft in formation. All 16 aircraft flew in the same direction and pattern, using a single entry and exit point.

A PLAAF Y-20 as viewed from the cockpit of an RMAF Hawk 208 light fighter that intercepted it on 31 May, 2021. (Royal Malaysian Air Force)

The 16 aircraft were initially detected flying through Singapore’s Flight Information Region at an altitude of between 23,000 and 27,000 feet, traveling through the Singaporean FIR and into Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone and the Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region at a speed of 290 knots. The formation came as close as 60 nautical miles to the shore of Sarawak, turning around after flying over the Malaysian-administered Beting Patinggi Ali shoals (also known as the South Luconia shoals).

Following the detection of the incoming PLAAF aircraft, the RMAF readied Hawk 208s of the No. 6 Squadron based in Labuan to intercept them as part of the RMAF’s Operation Curiga (Suspicion). After the PLAAF aircraft failed to respond to radio communications ordering them to contact the Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region’s air traffic controllers and were found to be continuing towards Malaysian airspace, the Hawks were scrambled at 1:33PM to conduct visual interceptions. Visual interception of the formation found the formation to be composed of Ilyushin IL-76 and Xian Y-20 strategic airlifters.

RMAF map showing the flight path of the PLAAF formation. The blue star marks where the RMAF Hawks made visual contact with the PLAAF aircraft.

RMAF chief General Tan Sri Ackbal Abdul Samad described the intrusion as a serious threat to both Malaysian sovereignty and flight safety, due to the high amount of air traffic that passes through the Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region’s airways. He stressed that the incident had been handled by the Malaysian military, and the RMAF in particular, in accordance with the laws and rules of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and National Air Defence Strategy, adding that the Malaysian Ministry of Defense had notified the Foreign Ministry of the incident.

While there have been previous incidents where PLAAF aircraft intruded into Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone (not to mention a maritime standoff last year between Chinese Coast Guard ships, the Royal Malaysian Navy and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency near the Beting Patinggi Ali shoals), this is the first time the Malaysian armed forces have used such strong language in their statements on such incidents. Meanwhile, the Malay Mail reports that the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur is denying that the aircraft intruded into other countries’ airspace, claiming that they strictly abided by international law during a routine training mission.

Yesterday’s incident comes at an especially awkward time for Putrajaya, already struggling with growing domestic dissatisfaction over a spike in COVID-19 cases that have now resulted in the imposition of a nationwide “full” lockdown starting today that will continue for at least the next two weeks. The Malaysian government has vowed to accelerate the national COVID-19 immunization campaign in response to sharply rising cases, however, the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccines are a key part of the campaign, possibly binding Putrajaya’s hands when it comes to a response. The opposition Pakatan Harapan political coalition is now calling for Putrajaya to present a “clear” action plan on its subsequent steps, in addition to urging for faster modernization of the Malaysian armed forces.