The Malaysian government said its navy did not notice Chinese warships near its waters last Tuesday, despite China's assertion that it had sent four ships carrying troops and helicopters to the southernmost tip of its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China had said its warships had gone to James Shoal, some 80km from Malaysian waters.
Malaysia's Foreign Ministry said it has taken note of the reports from Chinese state media but declined to comment further.
"Malaysia conducts regular patrols in the South China Sea but upon checking with the Royal Malaysian Navy and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency, they did not report any sightings of the said Chinese navy ships within the vicinity of Malaysia," the spokesman for Wisma Putra, or the foreign ministry, told The Straits Times yesterday.
In an unprecedented move, Beijing undertook naval exercises at the southernmost point of its claims in the disputed waters, with its naval crew pledging to protect China's territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea.
Observers say this was the first time Chinese state media had publicised the naval theatrics and could be sending a signal to South-east Asian countries that it might resort to using force to get the islands.
Apart from China's navy possibly not entering waters claimed by Malaysia itself, analysts say another reason why Kuala Lumpur is downplaying China's move could be that it is currently focused on domestic affairs, with general elections just weeks away and the government still cracking down on Sulu militants in Sabah.
"The Malaysian government is seen to have turned more inward by focusing on domestic policies in recent years and it is more important for the government to drive out the Sulu militants and monitor people's movements in Sabah than respond to external movements at this point in time," Dr Joseph Liow, Associate Dean of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, told The Straits Times.
Some 200 militants intruded into Sabah nearly two months ago, pressing long-ago claims on parts of the state.
The disruption has caused unhappiness among locals in Sabah, traditionally the ruling Barisan Nasional's stronghold in winning federal power in the general elections.
So "it's not surprising that Malaysia may not have kept its eye on the ball on the Chinese naval fleet's movement off Malaysia's coast," Dr Liow said.
Maritime analysts say the naval exercises could be an annual affair, as China steps up its territorial claims on the South China Sea islands, with parts also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.
Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia have also laid claim to the nearby islands.
"There is little Southeast Asian countries can do about it, as none of the Asean countries have the size or resources to take on China," Dr Hamzah Ahmad, an academic specialising in maritime law and security at Universiti Malaya, told The Straits Times.
"Malaysia is likely to avoid confrontation with China so long as the economic ties China has with the region are not disrupted."
Yong Yen Nie
The Straits Times
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