The US has backed Malaysia’s claim of 16 Chinese aircraft performing an exercise off of Sarawak last week, voicing support for the count despite protest by a Chinese military source who was quoted as saying that only two planes were involved in the incident.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) had quoted a Chinese military source who said that China only dispatched two transport aircraft to the South China Sea, to deliver essential supplies to soldiers in Chinese-held territory.
But the US Pacific Air Forces said in a report by SCMP that the number of aircraft involved in the incident was “closer to what the Royal Malaysian Air Force is tracking” although the spokesman declined to reveal further details on collection methods.
Pacific Air Forces Commander General Ken Wilsbach meanwhile was reported as saying in a teleconference last Friday that the number of Chinese planes was likely “not as close to the Chinese number as what the Chinese said it was”.
The Chinese aircraft had flown over hotly contested waters off of Sarawak on May 31, prompting the air force to scramble its jets in response.
Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein criticised the flight as an “intrusion” and said the government would lodge a protest with Beijing and summon the Chinese ambassador.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur however said the “activities are routine flight training of the Chinese air force and do not target any country”.
“According to relevant international law, Chinese military aircraft enjoy the freedom of overflight in the relevant airspace,” he said. He also denied that the planes had entered the territorial airspace of any other country.
The aircraft came within 60 nautical miles (110km) of the Malaysian part of Borneo, and did not respond to attempts to contact them. They turned back before entering Malaysian airspace over its territorial waters.
However, Hishammuddin said they had entered the country’s “maritime zone” – an area that extends much further from the coast.
Wilsbach previously condemned the Chinese military flight activity, describing it as “escalatory” and “destabilising”.
“We set ourselves up for miscalculations around the region when we have some of these activities when we’re getting into people’s airspace that we shouldn’t,” he said.