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US, Malaysia Had Talks On Spy Flights Out Of Sabah

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A top US Navy officer had said this week that Malaysia had offered to let the United States use one of its bases for a detachment of new maritime surveillance planes, but officials clarified on Friday that no such flights had been approved.

The Asian diplomat confirmed the talks with US newspaper New York Times but declined to be named because of the secrecy of the matter.

He also said despite goodwill between both countries, Malaysia had felt China’s increasing military power and sought a balance by reaching out to the United States.

The newspaper also cited analysts giving reasons for the offer to host P-8 planes out of Sabah, on the northern tip of the oil-rich region of the South China Sea.

“China has surprised Malaysia by bringing military ships into its waters and tacitly threatening offshore Malaysia oil and gas exploration,” said Ernie Bower, senior adviser for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

News about the Malaysian offer broke after US chief of naval operations Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert revealed it to a forum in Washington last week, saying that P-8 Poseidon aircraft flights out of the country’s most eastern area would give the United States greater proximity to the South China Sea.

The P-8 Poseidons were used in the search for missing Flight MH370 last March over the South China Sea and has capabilities to search for submarines. There is a squadron of P-8s based out of Japan.

Putrajaya has yet to confirm the offer to host the spy planes but Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said “Not true” to questions yesterday if such flights were being allowed out of Sabah.

Hosting spy flights out of Sabah would be tricky for Malaysia as it has very close ties with China despite both nations being among six that have disputes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

China has been flexing its muscles in the area but 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 General Fan Changlong, a vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, warned the US 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.

Reuters also reported that a spokesperson for Admiral Greenert, navy Captain Danny Hernandez, had clarified that the senior navy officer had not said any P-8 flights from Malaysia had been approved nor that there was an agreement to do so.

“The CNO did not talk about approving flights. What he was discussing was nurturing future opportunities, like responding to emerging issues in the region, which was done with (Malaysia Airlines flight) MH370 search operations,” Hernandez had told Reuters.

According to the report, the US navy has been flying military aircraft from Malaysia for years on a case-by-case basis, such as the search for flight MH370 in March, without a formal agreement.

The US State Department also “has no plans for a permanent presence in Malaysia” and that “any US military engagement in Malaysia is with the permission and the full cooperation of the Malaysian government.”- themalaysianinsider

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