Malaysia’s prime minister is in China this week for talks with top officials about Kuala Lumpur’s handling of disappeared Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
During Prime Minister Najib Razak six-day visit he will meet with China’s leaders, but not with relatives of the passengers of flight MH370.
Two-thirds of the 239 passengers on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing were Chinese, and their families say they are still looking for closure nearly three months after the plane disappeared.
“As a human being, the plane was from Malaysia, it was flying from Malaysia, it belonged to a Malaysian company, I think they should be responsible,” said Steve Wang, whose mother was on the plane when it disappeared. Wang said Najib’s decision angers many of the relatives.
This year was supposed to be the “Malaysia-China Friendship Year” and Malaysia had launched an advertising campaign to draw Chinese tourists, who account for some 12 percent of Malaysia’s annual tourist arrivals.
Realtions between the two countries worsened, though, after flight MH370 disappeared early on the morning of March 8. Malaysian officials took days to release information from radar and satellites about the plane’s whereabouts, slowing the search effort. China’s foreign ministry publicly rebuked Malaysia for its handling, and allowed relatives to protest in front of the Malaysia embassy.
Months later, there are no signs that authorities are any closer to locating the plane. This week coordinators in Australia said that after searching some 850 square kilometers for the plane using an unmanned submersible vehicle, they are expanding the search area to as much as 60,000 square kilometers.
Joseph Cheng, a professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong, said that while the plane’s disappearance is an embarrassment to Malaysia and will have a short-term impact on tourism, government-to-government relations will remain strong.
“Malaysia is very rich in resources which is coveted by China, and China certainly is eager to expand trade with Malaysia and step up investment there,” said Cheng.
Malaysia and China are the largest trading partners of members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with annual trade reaching $106 billion last year. Cheng said the United States’ pivot to Asia provides further incentive for China to strengthen ties with its Southeast Asian neighbor.
“Malaysia is one of those countries in ASEAN that China would very much like to cultivate, because the Malaysian leadership has certain reservations about western values and about moving too close to the United States,” Cheng said.
While Malaysia and China claim overlapping territories in the South China Seas, Malaysia’s criticism of China on that issue has been muted. The two countries have also strengthened military ties and launched joint military drills last year.
Nearly one quarter of Malaysia’s population is ethnically Chinese, and Chinese blogger Michael Anti said criticism of Malaysia from Chinese Internet users over the disappearance of Flight MH370 has been overtaken by other events in recent months.
“Compared to the Chinese attitude to Vietnam, to the Philippines, to Japan, we can say the sentiment to Malaysia has already come back to normal,” Anti said.
In 1974, Malaysia became the first Southeast Asian country to establish diplomatic relations with China. This week, Prime Minister Razak will meet with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang to mark 40 years of diplomatic ties.