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MH370 leaves diplomatic turbulence in its wake

Sino-Malaysian tensions from a mismanaged tragedy will dissipate, experts say, but Australia shows lasting leadership

This year was supposed to be "Malaysia-China Friendship Year," so-designated to commemorate 40 years since diplomatic relations were established between two Asian nations with a placid recent history and a robust economic partnership. A “Visit Malaysia Year” campaign was launched to lure more tourists from China, which already accounts for 12 percent of Malaysia’s annual tourist arrivals and is the country’s largest trading partner.

Instead, 2014 has been marred by the almost certain demise of 239 victims, including 153 Chinese nationals, aboard Malaysian Airlines flight 370. It is believed to have crashed somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean and the incident has ensnared China and Malaysia in a war of sharp-tongued rhetoric and pointed blame amid the botched search for remnants of the plane, which went missing after it departed Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8.

Protests have erupted outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing as the outraged relatives of the missing demand answers about the fruitless search — the most expensive in aviation history — and complain of the incompetence of Malaysian officials, who have periodically released contradictory information about the plane’s whereabouts and about the survival chances of its passengers. On Chinese microblogging site Weibo, many are calling for a boycott of “everything from Malaysia,” including Malaysian pop stars popular in China (about one-quarter of Malaysia’s population is ethnic Chinese, so cultural cross-pollination is common).

Meanwhile, Malaysia’s home minister, Datuk Seri Ahmad, and others have accused China of “stoking the anger” of victims’ families — an apparent effort to curry domestic favor, according to Wang Wenwen in China’s English-language newspaper Global Times. “There is a worrying sign that the public mood might be fanned by some opinion leaders at the price of ruining good people-to-people relationship between the two countries,” Wang wrote.

Still, whatever surfaces from MH370 in the coming months, most analysts expect the rough diplomatic seas between China and Malaysia to ultimately calm.

While the media has been captivated by the mysterious disappearance of MH370, which has briefly unsettled a long friendly partnership, fears of a prolonged economic or diplomatic falling out are exaggerated, said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Some analysts have projected that Malaysia’s tourism industry and its China-boosted real-estate market could suffer as confidence in the Malaysian government plummets. They point to the cautionary tale of China-Japan in 2012, when tensions between the regional powers reached a fever pitch and China mobilized a boycott that hit the Japanese auto industry hard.

That comparison is off base, said Kurlantzick. China and Japan see themselves as world powers with a heated, historical rivalry, whereas the MH370 tragedy is an isolated debacle involving a country that poses no regional threat to China.

“Over time, relations will resume their normal trajectory and the crisis will be written off to the Malaysian government’s incompetence,” he said. Though Malaysian tourism statistics are not yet available for the past two months, Kurlantzick expects a rebound in that sector for Malaysia. “Tourism to Malaysia will go back to the way it was. Chinese tourists are looking for a close regional destination that’s pretty friendly and comfortable with Chinese tourists, so Malaysia still fits the bill.”

Michael Kulma, a senior fellow and the executive director for Global Leadership Initiatives at the Asia Society, agreed that Sino-Malaysian relations have not been irreparably derailed. “China is the largest trading partner for Malaysia, so there’s a deep and long-term connection there. These things tend to go back to trending towards the norm, no matter what the nature of the relationship.”

Success borne of tragedy

Meanwhile, of the more than two dozen countries who have participated in the search for MH370, Australia has shone. As Beijing and Kuala Lumpur lock horns, Australia has taken charge of the search for MH370, whose disappearance has baffled many in an age where every plane is equipped with a black box and personal cell phones double as GPS trackers.

On Monday, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott announced the search would dive deeper underwater in the next phase of the search, which could take months or even years and might cost upwards of $50 million. A small price to pay, Abbott said.

“I want the families to know — I want the world to know — that Australia will not shirk its responsibilities in this area,” he said. “We do not want this crippling cloud of uncertainty to hang over this family and the wider traveling public.”

A few commentators have noted with a tinge of cynicism that Abbott may have even scored points with Beijing for a proposed bilateral free-trade agreement nine years in the works — one of Abbott’s foremost foreign policy goals. After getting off to a rough start with China in October, when the newly elected Abbott described Japan as “Australia’s best friend in Asia,” relations seem to have warmed. During the Australian prime minister’s mid-April visit to Beijing, Chinese premier Li Keqiang “expressed a high degree of appreciation for Australia’s hard work” in the search effort, according to Xinhua news agency.

“Abbott’s timely visit to China offers Beijing an opportunity to stress Australia’s capable handling of the search operation,” wrote Vaughn Winterbottom in The Interpreter, a publication of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, an Australian think tank. Any movement towards the free trade agreement would be considered “a success … borne of a tragedy,” he said.

Chinese demand for commodities in large part fueled Australia’s booming economy over the past several years, while most of the world was reeling in the global economic crisis.

Yet while Australia’s leadership in the regional search effort “makes Australia look good,” Kurlantzick said, “it's also not that surprising that a rich country with a large air force and advanced technology is better at looking for a missing plane than Malaysia is.”

Besides, said Asia Society's Kulma, “this isn’t a matter of winners and losers. The losers, of course, are the people who lost their lives and family members.”

“The net positive from all this would be if, going forward, there will be greater regional cooperation in how we deal with these types of situations to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”

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