In a recent event highlighting the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA) vessel “KM Bistari” closely shadowed the Chinese Coast Guard vessel CCG 5402 as it entered Malaysian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) waters near Beting Patinggi Ali (Luconia Shoals), off the coast of Sarawak.

Despite being only 40 meters long and weighing 230 tons, KM Bistari closely followed the much larger Chinese vessel, which measures 100 meters in length and weighs approximately 4,000 tons. The CCG 5402 is no stranger to Malaysian waters, having been frequently spotted near Beting Patinggi Ali in recent years. Its primary mission seems to be harassing Malaysian oil and gas activities in the area.

According to international researcher Raymond M. Powell, head of the Myoushu Project at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, University of Stanford, the Malaysian coast guard vessel maintained a distance of just 150 meters from the CCG 5402 on April 7, 2023. The Chinese vessel had been disrupting oil and gas activities in the area since its arrival on March 31, replacing another Chinese vessel known as “The Monster” (CCG 5901).

Following the close encounter, KM Bistari moved north of Beting Patinggi Ali on April 8, 2023, to inspect two support vessels and an operating platform involved in the country’s oil and gas operations within the Malaysian EEZ. The CCG 5402 had previously been monitoring the same operations, focusing on the locally owned support vessels and the oil platform.

Powell reported that the Chinese vessel later moved east to continue disrupting Malaysian oil and gas operations in the South Luconia Shoals area. Beting Patinggi Ali, located 84 nautical miles (155 km) off the coast of Miri, Sarawak in the South China Sea, is a proven resource-rich area abundant in oil and gas.

The presence of the Chinese Coast Guard vessel CCG 5402 in the waters around Beting Patinggi Ali was first reported by the international research organization Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) as early as 2020. Citing AMTI’s report from three years prior, Defence Security Asia also reported on the unwelcome presence of the Chinese vessel in Malaysian EEZ waters.

According to the 2020 AMTI report, starting from November 19, 2020, the CCG 5402 had been disrupting the operations of Malaysian oil and gas platforms and support vessels in the area, located only 44 nautical miles off the coast of Sarawak. In response to these provocations, the Royal Malaysian Navy deployed the vessel KD Bunga Mas 5 to shadow the Chinese coast guard vessel.

The report highlighted the tensions between the Malaysian navy and the Chinese coast guard in Malaysian EEZ waters. AMTI provided AIS (Automatic Identification System) data from Marine Traffic and satellite images from Planet Labs to showcase the unfolding standoff between the two vessels three years ago.

The recent incident serves as a reminder of the ongoing territorial disputes and escalating tensions in the South China Sea, where multiple countries continue to stake their claims over valuable natural resources. As tensions continue to rise in the South China Sea, Malaysia must adopt a multi-faceted approach to address the challenges posed by the presence of Chinese vessels in its EEZ. The country’s immediate response should focus on the following measures:

  1. Strengthening regional cooperation: In addition to diplomatic efforts, Malaysia should work closely with its neighbors and regional partners to present a united front against any attempts to undermine the rules-based order in the South China Sea. This can include joint maritime exercises, intelligence sharing, and coordination on policy initiatives related to the disputed waters.
  2. Legal avenues: Malaysia should explore legal means to address the situation, such as submitting the dispute to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for arbitration. By pursuing a legal resolution, Malaysia can demonstrate its commitment to upholding international law and set a precedent for resolving similar disputes in the region.
  3. Enhancing maritime capabilities: In the face of continued Chinese incursions, Malaysia should invest in improving its maritime capabilities to better protect its territorial waters and resources. This may involve acquiring advanced naval assets, developing and training specialized maritime forces, and enhancing surveillance and monitoring systems to detect and respond to threats in a timely manner.
  4. Public diplomacy and information sharing: Malaysia should work to raise awareness of the situation in the South China Sea, both domestically and internationally. By sharing information and engaging in public diplomacy, Malaysia can garner support from the international community and highlight the importance of respecting the rules-based order in the region.

By adopting a comprehensive approach that balances diplomacy, legal action, and military preparedness, Malaysia can effectively address the immediate challenges posed by Chinese vessels in its EEZ while laying the groundwork for a peaceful and stable future in the South China Sea.

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