Kuala Lumpur | China on Wednesday responded to Malaysia’s protests following the incursion of 16 Chinese military aircraft off the Southeast Asian country, saying it was a “routine exercise”.
Malaysia sent fighters on Monday to intercept Chinese military transport planes that appeared off the island of Borneo, over the part of the South China Sea that the two countries claim.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein described the theft as “interference” and said his country would formally protest and summon the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia.
But a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur said that “the activities were routine exercises for the Chinese air force and are not targeting any country.”
“According to international law, Chinese military aircraft can enjoy freedom of flight” in this region, he said.
The Chinese planes did not enter the airspace of a third country, the spokesman said.
The Malaysian Air Force said Chinese planes flew 110 kilometers off the coast of Indonesia’s Borneo and failed to respond to contact attempts, prompting Malaysia to send its fighters.
The Chinese planes turned around before entering Malaysian airspace.
But Malaysia’s foreign minister said the planes had flown over the country’s exclusive economic zone and described the incident as an “attack on Malaysia’s airspace and sovereignty”.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, and has set up military outposts on small islands and atolls in the area, angering many countries that claim the waters adjacent to its territory.
While relations between China and Malaysia are usually cordial, Monday’s incident comes after tensions escalated over maritime issues.
A Chinese mapping vessel last year clashed with a Malaysian vessel searching for oil off the island of Borneo.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, and Taiwan also have claims to the South China Sea.
The United States sent military ships to the region to assert its rights to freedom of navigation, which alarmed China.