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South China Sea

China's incursions over Malaysia add to South China Sea disputes

Beijing uses show of force and vaccine diplomacy to expand influence

A Chinese military plane is spotted in Malaysian airspace, according to Malaysia's air force. (Taken from a Malaysian military Tweet)

JAKARTA/BEIJING/TAIPEI -- China has stepped up incursions into Southeast Asian airspace, drawing the ire of Malaysia in the most recent breach, as Beijing seeks to expand its influence in the region with the mix of a vaccine charm offensive and a show of force. 

Malaysia's air force scrambled jets this week to intercept 16 Chinese aircraft entering its national airspace. The Chinese aircraft were "flying in tactical formation" and came within 60 nautical miles of Borneo, the air force said on Monday.

China has multiple territorial disputes with Southeast Asian nations. In the Philippines, Chinese vessels have remained near the Spratly Islands since March, prompting protests from Manila. But the recent aerial activities suggest the stage for China's show of force has gradually shifted from seas to skies. 

Relations between China and Malaysia are considered relatively good, and such a dispute over an airspace intrusion is rare. China denied a breach of airspace, and the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times quoted an expert saying the flight was part of a rescue operation exercise. 

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are slated to discuss on Monday territorial disputes in the South China Sea, along with the Myanmar situation and the coronavirus response. Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein is expected to meet with Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines and lodge a complaint. 

According to the Indonesian air force, foreign planes breached its airspace 498 times this year as of May 17, a tenfold increase from 2014. 

As China built up its maritime presence, Beijing as well as other governments have bolstered patrols in the region, contributing to the increased incursions. 

China's pressure campaign also targets Taiwan. In the 106 days from Jan. 1 through April 16, Chinese military airplanes entered the island's air defense identification zone on 75 days, or 70% of the total, according to Nikkei's own tallies. But that pressure campaign has subsided in recent weeks.

China sees the South China Sea as one of its "core interests." 

The sea's deep water makes it optimal for Chinese nuclear submarines to operate without detection by the U.S. But the region also offers rich natural resources.

China has ramped up patrols in the Vanguard Bank, a known South China Sea flashpoint between Vietnam and China, where Beijing has an exploratory base. The westernmost reef of the Spratly Islands has rich oil and gas reserves.

Southeast Asian nations have traditionally maintained equidistant foreign policy to keep all superpowers at an arm's length. But China has been trying to break that pattern by offering coronavirus vaccines as those nations see infection surges. Most recently, Vietnam's health ministry on Thursday authorized a COVID vaccine from China's Sinopharm for emergency use.

The U.S. and Europe are not standing idly by. The U.S. Biden administration is forming a de facto anti-China coalition in the Indo-Pacific known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, with Japan, India and Australia. The U.K. in May sent an aircraft carrier group to the Indo-Pacific while France has dispatched a frigate to the region for joint military drills. 

Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, U.S. Pacific Air Force commander, told a news conference on Friday that the U.S. is closely monitoring all activities in the region. Rising tensions also increase the risk of accidental military conflict.

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