60 Chinese nationals were arrested during an operation off the east coast of Johor, the southern Malaysian state that borders Singapore, according to a statement. Their ships, all registered in Qinhuangdao, a port in northern China, were en route to Mauritania, West Africa, when they entered Malaysian waters, the country’s maritime authorities said.
Malaysia reported 89 intrusions by Chinese coastguards and navy vessels between 2016 and 2019, as tensions continue to escalate between the United States and China over Beijing’s claims over much of the resource-rich South China Sea, which is also a major trade route.
The arrests in Malaysia coincide with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s tour of Southeast Asian countries. The four-day trip, which includes stops in Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and Singapore, is intended to help strengthen regional ties amid mounting pressure from Washington and the continuing fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. .
China’s Ministry of Commerce said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have become each other’s largest trading partner, with January-August total trade reaching 416, $ 5 billion, according to Chinese state media.
While Washington has long opposed Beijing’s actions, the United States has stepped up its challenges this year: it has officially dismissed China’s claims as illegal and has sanctioned dozens of Chinese companies for building islands. artificial. In July, two US Navy aircraft carriers conducted joint military exercises at sea for the first time in six years – a strong show of force.
The United States has also increased its engagement with the Quad, an alliance with Australia, Japan and India that some see as some sort of Asian North Atlantic Treaty (NATO) organization, much to the chagrin. from Beijing. Speaking last week, a US State Department official said that a “sudden shift towards brutal aggression by the Chinese government throughout its periphery” has increased Beijing’s neighbors’ willingness to back down and made “the Quad really important and functional this time around. . “
Competing claims in the East China Sea
China’s maritime expansion is not just happening in the South China Sea. On Monday, the Japanese Coast Guard (JCG) said two Chinese ships had entered what Tokyo considers its territorial waters near the Senkakus, a highly controversial set of islands in the East China Sea known as Diaoyus in China.
The two Chinese Coast Guard patrol vessels have been in the area since Sunday, Japanese authorities said, and have attempted to approach Japanese fishing vessels in the area to remove them from what China considers its territorial waters. .
Japan – which recently increased its defense budget to the highest level on record – has complained of “relentless” intrusions into the waters around the Senkakus, which encompass rich fishing grounds and potential oil and gas fields. of natural gas. This is the 18th time in 22 days that Chinese ships have entered Japanese waters, JCG said.
Additional reports provided by Yoko Wakatsuki, Jessie Yeung and CNN’s Reuters.