Malaysia has said that more than 100 Chinese fishing boats have been spotted within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Sarawak in the latest incident involving Chinese vessels in the disputed waters.
The boats were sighted near Beting Patinggi Ali, also known as Luconia Shoals, about 100km off the coast of Miri in Sarawak. Malaysia planned to take action against them.
Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim said the government has instructed the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) to deploy its assets to monitor the situation.
"Three MMEA vessels have been deployed to the area. The Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) assets are also there. The Bombardier aircraft has also carried out aerial monitoring in that area and found a group of Chinese fishermen there," the minister said, according to the Bernama news agency.
The shoals are near the southern extreme of China's so-called nine- dash line, according to previous media reports. China is claiming territories inside the nine-dash line which spans 90 per cent of the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea.
Legal action may be taken, Minister Shahidan Kassim said according to the Associated Press, if the ships did enter Malaysia’s economic zone.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, said at a regular briefing on Friday that he did not “understand the details” of what the Malaysian government had said about the matter.
“What I want to point out is that now is the fishing season in the South China Sea ... At this time of year, every year, Chinese trawlers are in the relevant waters carrying out normal fishing activities,” Hong was quoted by Reuters as saying. He did not elaborate.
The increased presence of Chinese vessels in the disputed territorial waters in the South China Sea as of late has irked both the Indonesian and Malaysian governments.
Indonesia also demanded that the Chinese government explain the “encroachment” of its coast guard vessel, claiming that it had interfered with Indonesia’s seizing of a Chinese boat that was fishing illegally in its waters.
According to the Jakarta Post, Indonesian Foreign Affairs Minister Retno Marsudi said her government had sent a diplomatic note to China to protest the actions of the coast guard vessel.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have overlapping claims. Tensions have ramped up since China began a massive land reclamation program in the strategically vital sea lane in 2013.