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Commentary: The trickiness of dealing with stray aircraft when territorial lines are grey

Malaysia’s encounter with Chinese military aircraft in early June illustrates how tackling foreign aircraft coming close can be a grey area in a region of overlapping claims and different interpretations of airspaces, says Mike Yeo.

Commentary: The trickiness of dealing with stray aircraft when territorial lines are grey

Malaysia scrambled fighter jets to intercept the Chinese air force transport planes that appeared off Borneo. (Photo: AFP/Handout)

MELBOURNE: The news that China sent 16 military aircraft to the vicinity of disputed shoals in the South China Sea on the last day of May and prompted the latter to scramble fighter jets in response raised eyebrows among regional defence watchers.

This new development has also understandably set off discussions in Malaysia about its response to what was seen as a show of strength by the regional power.

Malaysia has framed the issue as one of an intrusion into Malaysian airspace by multiple Chinese government aircraft.

The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) said in a news release on Tuesday (Jun 2) that 16 Xian Y-20 and Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) approached to within 60 nautical miles (112 km) of Malaysia’s coast, flying at speeds of 290 knots (537 kmh) at between 23,000 and 27,000 ft in a tactical line astern formation.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein also said his ministry will issue a diplomatic note of protest and request an explanation from the Chinese Ambassador from Malaysia to explain the “breach of Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”.

The RMAF news release added that the Chinese aircraft, which flew past Beting Patinggi Ali or Luconia Shoals and turning back in the vicinity of nearby James Shoal, did not respond when repeatedly hailed by Malaysian air traffic controllers.

After failing to identify the aircraft detected on radar, the RMAF scrambled its BAE Hawk 208 light combat jets from nearby Labuan to intercept and investigate.

The shoals are located off the coast of Sarawak and lie inside Malaysia’s 200 nm (370 km) Exclusive Economic Zone, although China also lays claim to both, which are within the “nine-dash line” which it uses to claim large swaths of the South China Sea.

READ: Malaysia should not be 'dragged and trapped' between superpowers in South China Sea dispute, says Hishammuddin

READ: Commentary: Can the Malaysian air force handle more airspace incursions by Chinese planes?

CHINA’S SHOW OF STRENGTH

Despite the RMAF calling the overflight a “serious matter that threatens national security”, there was technically nothing illegal about it.

The aircraft did not intrude into Malaysia’s territorial airspace and were in international airspace throughout the duration.

And while the large formation of aircraft did not make contact with Malaysian air traffic controllers as they flew in airspace under control of the Kota Kinabalu Flight Information Region (FIR), there are no requirements for military aircraft to comply with civilian aviation rules when operating in international airspace under International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) rules.

Beijing claims nearly all of the strategically vital South China Sea, including waters approaching the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. (Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe)

The PLAAF aircraft were also not legally obligated to turn on their transponders that broadcast their identity and intentions. Air traffic controllers use this information to assist in managing the airspace under their control.

Although Malaysian civil aviation authorities exercise air traffic management and administer air traffic services within its assigned FIR on grounds of safety, countries do not have sovereignty over those areas.

Nevertheless, sending 16 military aircraft thousands of kilometres to fly over disputed shoals in the vicinity of a neighbouring country is unquestioningly an unfriendly and intended demonstration of presence and exercise in desensitisation, especially given the PLAAF aircraft flew directly towards the Malaysian coast before turning around.  

In addition to cargo, these aircraft could also transport paratroopers, trucks or armoured vehicles in an invasion scenario.

This is not the first time PLAAF jets have approached Malaysia although this is the first time such a large aircraft force has been observed, making the recent overflight an even more noteworthy move.

READ: Commentary: They already have jet bombers and super missiles. Will Chinese fighter jets be more powerful than America’s soon?

This is despite a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur calling the exercise merely “routine flight training”. Judging from the aircraft type involved and their composition makes it likely to be a long-range airlift surge exercise to hone the PLAAF’s skills in undertaking large scale air transportation missions over long distances.  

Within the same area, however, China and Malaysia have had maritime standoffs near Luconia Shoals where Chinese ships have harassed Malaysian drilling rigs and supply ships in November 2020.

Such incidents take place as often as once a week. While they rarely take place so close to the coast, “this is becoming quite normal”, Institute of Strategic and International Studies’ senior foreign policy analyst Shariman Lockman said last year, speaking to Voice of America.

READ: Commentary: The sands in the South China Sea dispute may be shifting

CHALLENGING TO DEAL WITH UNIDENTIFIED AIRCRAFT

The incident also gives an insight into how countries deal with unidentified aircraft approaching their airspace.

A H-6 bomber of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force flying near a Taiwan F-16 in a Feb 10, 2020 handout photo. (Photo: Reuters) H-6 bomber of Chinese PLA Air Force flies near a Taiwan F-16 in this February 10, 2020 handout photo

The RMAF said the first Chinese aircraft was detected in Singapore’s FIR (assigned by the ICAO and extends far into the South China Sea to almost near Palawan in the Philippines) at 11.53am on May 31.

It added that upon crossing into the Kota Kinabalu FIR, the unidentified aircraft were repeatedly asked to contact air traffic controllers.

When no response was forthcoming, Hawk 208 light combat jets from the RMAF’s Labuan-based 6 Squadron were scrambled to investigate the radar contacts, taking off at 1.33pm.

Judging from the map released by the RMAF which showed the boundary lines between FIRs and the speed of the Chinese jets, the elapsed time between PLAAF jets crossing into Kota Kinabalu FIR and the order to scramble could have been as quick as 20 minutes, assuming RMAF planes were placed on the highest alert status.

An edited audio transcript published by a Malaysian aviation blog of the Malaysian air traffic controllers interacting with other commercial airliners and the RMAF interceptors in the lead up to and the aftermath of the intercept suggests that two Hawk 208s were involved, which is expected as fighter jets typically operate in pairs at a minimum during operational missions.  

READ: Commentary: How China will try to subdue Taiwan – without firing a bullet

READ: Commentary: China’s cheap drones are finally taking off, with many uses and huge implications

However, escalating a response to the point of sending interceptors to investigate contacts is not usually required. 

If suspicious aircraft respond to air traffic control queries or do not appear to pose a threat to a country’s territory or enter its territorial airspace, they might not be pursued further.  

This is also the case in Singapore, with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) saying previously that it investigates “more than 350 suspicious air threats on any given year in order to protect Singapore’s skies".

This works out to an average of almost one per day. The RSAF has on occasion also needed to scramble interceptors when the occasion demanded it, such as when bomb threats were made on commercial flights that had departed from, or bound for, Singapore – like the most recent March 2019 case involving a Singapore Airlines flight from Mumbai.

RSAF's aerostat provides 24/7 low-level radar coverage over Singapore. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

Singapore’s challenge is compounded by the busy airspace in and around the island and the proximity of a number of foreign airports nearby, which reduce response times when it comes to unidentified aircraft.

It is a challenge for air traffic controllers to decide whether an aircraft already so close to Singapore’s airspace could be left alone or warrant further investigation.

Obviously, having to scramble fighter jets to intercept every single suspicious air contact international airspace will be an onerous task which will rapidly wear out aircraft and personnel. In addition to radio calls which can be ignored or scrambling fighter jets, countries also have the option of asking any nearby aircraft to assist in trying to identify the suspicious aircraft.

READ: Commentary: Fighter jets get attention but defending Singapore against rockets and drones require very different tools

This is something Japan has come to realise. The country recently tightened its previously liberal criteria for scrambling fighter jets to intercept foreign military aircraft operating it its expansive Air Defence Identification Zone, with intercepts of what are mostly Chinese and Russian military aircraft dropping to 725 times in its 2020 fiscal year from 947 previously.

Last week’s overflight is yet another reminder of what is often referred to as the “global commons” and the need for nations to share the use of these in transparent, responsible manner.

It is however also a reminder of the security challenges confronting the region, with unresolved territorial disputes and overlapping claims never far from bubbling to the surface.

Mike Yeo is the Asia reporter for US-based defence publication Defense News.

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