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Growing Tensions Between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur

Could the MH370 Disaster Herald a Pivot in Malaysia’s Foreign Policy?

by NILE BOWIE

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Malaysia and China, and while 2014 was meant to serve as a symbolic year of friendship to deepen cooperation between the two countries, the unfortunate irony is that relations have been pushed to their lowest ever over the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 bound for Beijing. On March 8th, the aircraft took off from Kuala Lumpur carrying 239 people and veered wildly off course while flying over the South China Sea, turning back around over the Malaysian peninsula toward the Indian Ocean where it is presumed to have crashed. The jetliner’s transponders were shut off without a mayday call, followed by significant changes in altitude after it lost contact with ground control less than an hour into the flight. Aviation experts claim that the aircraft’s movements were consistent with deliberate action and that calculated changes in the flight’s trajectory indicate that the plane was continually under the command of a pilot. The cause of the aircraft’s erratic change of trajectory and disappearance has yet to be established. An extensive multinational search and rescue effort, said to be the largest in history, has failed to produce any trace of debris from the aircraft, making MH370 the longest civil aircraft disappearance in modern history.

The missing aircraft is thought to have crashed into the remote Indian Ocean, while the search area in question is more than 370 miles long and 30 miles wide. Such an unprecedented and unusual disaster scenario would surely test any government, while a lack of experience in crisis management has magnified the shortcomings of Malaysia’s response to the disaster, which has been widely criticized at home and abroad. Malaysia has rarely faced disasters, terrorism or emergency situations, and its authorities have been thrust into an unenviable position in the global spotlight, while the contradictory statements of government officials, a delayed release of information, and critical inaction of Malaysia’s military in responding to the aircraft as it flew wildly off course have all compounded the frustrations of the relatives of those onboard. Some two-thirds of the passengers on the Beijing-bound aircraft were Chinese nationals, and the disappearance of MH370 has seen figures from China’s Foreign Ministry routinely criticize Malaysia’s response by publically cajoling officials into providing more consistent and reliable information.

Scathing rhetoric

Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur have been relatively harmonious over the decades, with few tense exchanges. However, the Malaysian government’s initial fumbles and lack of coordination in handling the MH370 situation led to a severely delayed release of information that incensed Chinese officials, prompting frequent condemnations of Malaysia in the Chinese state media, which argued how the lack of timely authoritative information imperiled the lives of passengers by hampering initial rescue attempts. After the plane disappeared on March 8th, search and rescue operations were pursuing false leads by erroneously focusing their search in the South China Sea, where the aircraft lost contact less than an hour into the flight. It took a full seven days for Malaysian authorities to release information confirming that the plane had drastically changed direction, and that the plane flew for nearly seven hours toward the Indian Ocean after disappearing from air traffic control. Flight MH370 moved through at least three military radar ranges as it traversed the northern area of the Malaysian peninsula, which should have provoked an emergency response from Malaysia’s air force, which could have intercepted the jetliner and possibly guided it toward a safe landing.

Malaysia’s air force claimed that MH370 did not trigger security alarms because the plane’s profile did not indicate it was a hostile craft, and that flight movements were recorded and not observed live. It’s possible that Malaysia was reluctant to disclose its radar data because it was disinclined to admit that an unidentified plane had breached air defense when MH370 radically changed directions. The perception that Malaysian officials appeared uncoordinated and frequently contradicted each other about basic facts prompted Chinese media to scold the poor performance of senior ministers and sharply criticize Malaysia over its perceived incoherent response to the crisis using much stronger language than usual. An editorial in the Global Times newspaper, which is seen as reflecting the opinions of the leadership in Beijing, criticized Malaysia’s long-held aspiration to become a high-income developed nation by 2020, saying that “judging from its handling of the MH370 incident, Malaysia’s modernization will take far longer than this.” The newspaper’s scathing verdict was that Malaysian authorities had lost “authority and credibility” due to its disorganized response.

Relatives of the Chinese passengers onboard, and a segment of Chinese netizens vented their anger against the Malaysian government, some even labeling Malaysian authorities and Malaysian Airlines officials as ‘murderers.’ Impulsive condemnations of Malaysia made waves on Chinese micro-blogging site Sina Weibo, and negative sentiments echoed through into Chinese mainstream media and entertainment. Several Chinese celebrities called for boycotts of Malaysian products and vowed not to visit the country, while verbal abuse was meted out to Malaysian celebrities with a following in China. On March 24, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that MH370 had presumably crashed in the Indian Ocean with no survivors. Relatives of those onboard were notified of Razak’s announcement via text message, which some perceived as being insensitive. The absence of Malaysian officials and representatives from Malaysian Airlines in Beijing to field questions from the families after the prime minister’s statement incensed grieving relatives, prompting public protests.

A call for calm

An organized demonstration was held outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing on March 25 where many relatives of the passengers onboard took part, fueling speculation that Malaysia could become the subject of a widespread boycott campaign in the vein of anti-Japan protests that sweep through China when tensions peak between Beijing and Tokyo. The protest is believed to be state-sponsored, as reports indicate that plainclothes police officers ushered the relatives onto buses, providing them with printed placards, T-shirts, and instructions on how to orderly demonstrate. China’s response to the missing aircraft was criticized by many in Malaysia and elsewhere as being somewhat condescending, as Chinese commentators posited how the country’s inefficient response stemmed from a lack of capability and an inferior administrative culture. Moreover, the stance of Beijing was calculated to deflect any criticism or accusations of apathy away from Chinese authorities, which used the opportunity to bolster their nationalist credentials by positioning themselves as defending the interests of their people.

As the multinational search operation continued throughout April, Chinese authorities softened their tone and attempted to diffuse public anger, perhaps acknowledging how Beijing’s response was an overreaction that risked deteriorating ties with Malaysia, a key ally and strategic partner. Huang Huikang, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, took a more conciliatory tone when he told reporters in Kuala Lumpur how “the Malaysian government has insufficient capabilities, technologies and experience in responding to the MH370 incident, but they did their best.” The Chinese media, which moves in step with official positions, has also followed suit. Commentary published in the state-owned China Daily in late March called for a calmer approach, stating: “Although the Malaysian government’s handling of the crisis has been quite clumsy, we need to understand this is perhaps the most bizarre incident in Asian civil aviation history.” A balanced and rational approach is needed by both sides to move forward, and the Chinese government’s recognition of this position indicates that despite tensions and a loss of trust from the unpleasant episode of MH370, diplomatic interactions will not be scaled back or terminated in any way.

Reassessing the relationship?

Despite the initial hostility projected towards Malaysia from sections of Chinese society as a result of the MH370 episode, the Chinese government continues to view overall political and economic ties with Malaysia as strategically important, and the toning down of rhetoric from Beijing was done with the awareness that a key relationship would become destabilized unless a softer policy line was taken. China’s foreign policy under President Xi Jinping has seen Beijing take a tough stance on territorial disputes, especially in the context of Japan and the Philippines where the United States has backed the positions of its allies. President Xi recently embarked on a charm offensive throughout Southeast Asia in an attempt to deepen relations with countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. Bilateral trade between Malaysia and China reached US$106 billion in 2013, making Malaysia the largest trading partner of China in the ASEAN region, and third-largest in Asia, behind Japan and South Korea. During Xi’s visit to Kuala Lumpur in October 2013, he called for the revival of a “maritime Silk Road” and upgraded China’s relationship with Malaysia to the level of a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” loaning two pandas to a Malaysian zoo as a diplomatic gesture of friendship and respect.

Economic ties are strategically important to China, as Malaysia maintains sovereign rights over the Straits of Malacca, one of Beijing’s most critical supply routes responsible for transporting oil and raw materials needed to maintain high economic growth. Another strong foundation in the Sino-Malaysia relationship is the strong cultural ties, facilitated by Malaysia’s large and economically influential ethnic Chinese community. Communal ties have also contributed to a booming tourist trade, with 1.79 million Chinese citizens visiting Malaysia in 2013, a figure that will certainly fall in 2014 due to the MH370 incident. A systematic campaign to boycott Malaysian products has not come into fruition on a wide scale, and overall business-to-business trade flows have not been significantly affected, although tourism and residential property sales are expected to take the most long-term damage, as mainland Chinese buyers have led the demand for real estate in recent years. Although there will be an economic price to pay, a change in Malaysia’s foreign policy and defense orientation would be a wholly negative development for China’s interests in the region.

In contrast to other countries in the ASEAN region that are open in their misgivings toward China’s expanding military influence, Malaysia has displayed an extremely low level of threat perception, likely due to close naval ties and a Memorandum of Understanding on defense cooperation. Malaysia’s positions on South China Sea disputes and larger issues that characterize ASEAN-China ties can be characterized by reticence and benignity to China’s interests more so than nearly all other regional neighbors. As the United States realigns its military and economic muscle toward the Asia-Pacific, the Obama administration sees Malaysia as an important geopolitical ally in the region. In late April, President Obama will be the first American president to visit Malaysia in several decades, and there is a perception that Prime Minister Najib Razak may be more amenable to US interests than previous leaders. Obama’s visit comes at a time when Malaysia’s relationship with China is bruised with condescension and mistrust. If the Malaysian leadership could ever be persuaded to gradually integrate into the US sphere and adopt positions on China’s territorial disputes that are more closely aligned with Washington’s positions, the current conditions are ideal.

Nile Bowie is a columnist with Russia Today, and a research affiliate with the International Movement for a Just World (JUST), an NGO based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.