BEIJING — Malaysia’s reported invitation to the United States to fly spy planes out of East Malaysia on the southern rim of the South China Sea seems likely to intensify China’s anger at American surveillance of the strategic waterway and its disputed islands, analysts say.
The United States’ chief of naval operations, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert, told a forum in Washington last week that the recent offer by Malaysia for P-8 Poseidon aircraft to fly out of the country’s most eastern area would give the United States greater proximity to the South China Sea.
Malaysia, which has had warm ties with China, has not confirmed whether it made the offer. The United States has vowed to maintain its influence in the region in the face of China’s rise, and this year won an agreement with the Philippines to give American troops, warships and planes greater access to bases there.
Admiral Greenert spoke the day before Gen. Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, warned the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, during her visit to Beijing that the Obama administration should halt what he called the “close-in” surveillance flights by P-8 Poseidon planes over the South China Sea and along China’s coast.
As China under the leadership of President Xi Jinpingasserts claims in the South China Sea and develops a more sophisticated fleet of submarines, it has increasingly contested the right of the United States to conduct surveillance flights over what it says are China’s territorial waters. Among other capabilities, the P-8 Poseidons can detect submarines.
Last month, a Chinese fighter pilot flew within 30 feet of a P-8, nearly causing a collision, the Pentagon said. That P-8, a new fast, high-flying plane built by Boeing and loaded with digital electronics, was based with a squadron of six P-8s that arrived at Kadena air base in Japan last year. The Pentagon has more than 100 P-8s on order from Boeing.
Hishammuddin Hussein, the Malaysian defense minister, was asked at a news conference whether permission had been given for “U.S. fighters” to operate out of East Malaysia. “That is not true,” he said, according to accountsin the Malaysian press. The minister was not asked about surveillance planes.
Discussions between Malaysia and the United States for the use of an air base in Sabah, in northeast Malaysia, have been underway for some time, according to a senior Asian diplomat who is familiar with the talks. The diplomat declined to be named because of the secrecy of the matter.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the reported Malaysian offer.
Malaysia, unlike the Philippines and Vietnam, has had good relations with China even though it also has territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. Malaysia, for example, claims James Shoal, just 50 miles from its shore but more than 930 miles from the Chinese mainland. China says the shoal marks the southernmost tip of the nine-dash line, a demarcation on maps made by the Chinese after World War II that China says forms its boundary in the South China Sea, but which few other countries recognize.
The state-run Malaysian energy giant, Petronas, is exploring for oil and gas inside the nine-dash line without retaliation from China.
Beneath the good will between the two countries, Malaysia has felt China’s increasing military power and has been seeking a balance by reaching out to the United States, the senior Asian diplomat said.
In his speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Admiral Greenert said, “We have opportunities here, and I think we’ve got to continue to nurture them.”