Sino-Malaysian friendship will defy public fallout from flight MH370

Relatives of the missing passengers on flight MH370 march on the Malaysian embassy in Beijing. EPA/Rolex dela Pena

“Visit Malaysia Year 2014” was expected to bolster Malaysia’s growing Chinese tourism market: Malaysia’s third-largest. Last October, commemorating four decades of close relations, Chinese president Xi Jinping likened bilateral ties to “flowing water which cannot be severed”.

But seven months later, bilateral relations more closely resemble “choppy waters” following the loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and its 239 passengers, two-thirds of them Chinese nationals who had been holidaying in Malaysia.

Chinese officials’ responses to the Malaysian government’s handling of MH370’s disappearance on March 8 have been relatively measured. Ironically, though, they have urged Malaysian authorities to be more transparent with information.

The Malaysian government delayed the release of the investigation’s preliminary report for more than three weeks. Dated April 9, the report – a sparse five pages offering little detail – was released overnight. There were no media briefings or opportunities for questions.

By contrast, Chinese state-controlled media have been more willing to articulate the strident sentiments of relatives of the passengers. For example, Chinese news agency Xinhua has accused the Malaysian government of a “dereliction of duty” and described its handling of MH370’s disappearance as “intolerable” and “inexcusable”.

Disregarding the directives of Chinese officials, distraught relatives have tried to storm the Malaysian embassy in Beijing. They have berated Malaysian officials for their contradictory press briefings in Kuala Lumpur and China.

But are the Chinese sentiments justified? Will the governments and the bilateral relationship, one of the closest between China and a Southeast Asian nation, suffer lasting damage?

Much at stake in bilateral relationship

Trade relations between Malaysia and China have grown steadily to be worth US$106 billion. This is expected to rise to US$160 billion by 2017. Malaysia is China’s largest trading partner in southeast Asia and the third largest in Asia, after Japan and South Korea.

Investment ties have also deepened. Malaysia’s government-linked companies (GLCs) such as Sime Darby are actively engaged in utility and infrastructure sectors while the state investment entity Khazanah has interests in China’s renewable energy and retail sectors. Malaysia’s state-owned oil company Petronas and China’s National Oil Company have joint ventures in countries such as Sudan.

Bilateral security ties have strengthened through the years. The Memorandum of Understanding on Defence Cooperation was signed in 2005. Since 2012, the Malaysia-China Defence and Security Consultation talks have become an annual affair.

Educational and social ties have steadily developed too. About 10,000 Chinese students are enrolled in Malaysian tertiary institutions and 2,000 Malaysians are studying in Chinese institutions.

It is not commonly known that Malaysia was the first Southeast Asian country to establish diplomatic relations with China in 1974. China’s growing significance is exemplified by the purposeful decisions by Abdullah Badawi (2004-2009) and Najib Razak (2009-) to visit Beijing before Washington upon their elevation to the prime ministership.

Not surprisingly, the long-serving Malaysian and Chinese regimes have adopted similar postures on non-interference in the domestic affairs of states and human rights.

Authoritarian tendencies exposed

The conduct of the search for flight MH370 has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on the Malaysian government in particular.

After the plane vanished, four hours passed before a search was ordered. Authorities took a whole week after the plane disappeared to reveal that it flew for another six hours after its final communication. In those seven days, Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines had been vainly searching in the South China Sea.

Malaysian authorities failed to collect and interpret information from their defence radar systems with precision, to confirm exactly when the ACARS (Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System) was disabled and to accurately transcribe the last words from the cockpit. They have yet to release an accurate timeline and flightpath.

Are authorities deliberately withholding information or is this reflective of lax governance standards? Malaysian officials’ failed to give coherent answers to robust questions from the foreign media. The bungled handling of press briefings suggests they are not accustomed to the processes of transparency expected in a functioning democracy.

Najib Razak’s performance has only reinforced these suspicions. He stuck to the prepared script and declined to field questions when he finally gave a media briefing a week after MH370 disappeared. Much like other Malaysian officials nervously subjected to international scrutiny, the prime minister appeared out of his depth.

Forced to face the international media, Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, looked out of his depth when exposed to questioning. AAP/Newzulu/Zaki Zulfadhli

Najib’s Barisan Nasional (BN) regime has ruled Malaysia since 1957 and has systematically politicised ethnicity and Islam in the face of dwindling electoral support. In the 2008 and 2013 elections, the BN failed to win the popular vote. The government was returned only because of gerrymandering and the ongoing harassment of opposition parties.

While pushing for transparency on the loss of MH370, the international community is cognisant that transparent governance is not characteristic of authoritarian regimes. A New York Times contributor noted that:

… the authorities’ ponderous response and mishandling of information mirror the way Malaysia is run … unaccustomed to global attention and accountability.

A Bloomberg commentary similarly observed:

The fumbling exposed a political elite that’s never really had to face questioning from its people, never mind the rest of the world.

Public left searching for answers

Chinese relatives and citizens have been just as critical of Chinese authorities and state media as they are of Malaysian authorities. They have expressed disappointment with the inability of state newspapers and media to produce in-depth analysis. The numerous false leads and failure to contribute substantively to the multinational search in the Indian Ocean have raised doubts about China’s military efficacy.

Relatives of the Chinese passengers and Malaysian opposition parties and civil society have called on their governments to set up commissions of inquiry – to no avail. The Malaysian government has stated that an inquiry will be initiated when the plane’s black box is found and the search is complete. That could take years.

Malaysia-China relations are, however, unlikely to have been severely damaged. Both regimes are strongly focused on deepening ties in a geo-political environment shaped by China’s status as a major power.

Despite the Malaysian government’s authoritarian proclivities, the Obama administration also values Malaysia as an important US ally. Malaysia has a role in its “pivot to Asia” geo-strategic calculations and its Trans-Pacific Partnership’s free trade agenda.

Relatives of MH370 passengers may have to seek avenues beyond state agencies to fully uncover the political and technical machinations surrounding one of the bewildering mysteries of aviation history.