It was the kind of gushing platitude kept on file for special occasions: 'There's a Malay proverb that says "Flowing water cannot be severed" and there's no better term to describe the traditional friendly relations between China and Malaysia,' said Chinese President Xi Jinping during his October 2013 visit to Malaysia.
Xi's visit marked 40 years of Sino-Malaysian diplomatic relations. Among the ceremonial gestures for the anniversary, China is loaning a pair of giant pandas to the Malaysia National Zoo for 10 years.
So far, there's no sign of China backtracking on its panda promise post-MH370. But more generally, how likely is it that the Malaysian Government's mishandling of the MH370 tragedy could trigger a reset in the two countries' amicable relations?
The two weren't always friends. Kuala Lumpur once regarded Beijing as the greatest threat to its security, thanks to the former's ambiguous policy towards the communist indoctrination of overseas Chinese communities and its support of the insurgent Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Suspicions were really only put aside with the dissolution of the MCP in 1989. Since then, Malaysian leaders have displayed an unusually low level of threat perception towards China compared to their counterparts in other parts in Southeast Asia.
Today, China and Malaysia enjoy an economically significant and politically sound relationship. Bilateral trade was US$106 billion in 2013, making Malaysia China's largest trading partner in ASEAN and third-largest in Asia, behind Japan and South Korea. Chinese tourism is an important contributor to the Malaysian services industry. Since signing a Memorandum of Understanding on defence cooperation in 2005, military exchanges have increased. The first annual Malaysia-China Defense and Security Consultation was held in 2012, and in December last year joint drills and exchanges between naval forces were agreed upon.
Then MH370 went missing.
The families of the Chinese citizens onboard, who made up the majority of the flight's 227 passengers, demanded answers. Malaysian authorities were unable (or unwilling, it was believed) to respond. As demands turned into frustration and anger, Chinese state media filled with editorials calling Malaysia's handling of the tragedy 'intolerable', 'derelict', and 'inexcusable', and hinting at conspiracy theories. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei used stronger-than-usual language demanding more information from Kuala Lumpur. Anger peaked on Tuesday when protesting relatives tried to storm the Malaysian embassy in Beijing.
Against this background, conjecture about a rupture in China-Malaysia relations has emerged. In The Diplomat, Shannon Tiezze writes:
Now those efforts to maintain ties to Beijing may be undone by the way Kuala Lumpur has handled the search for Flight 370. China News Service, citing a member of the Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce, said the controversy surrounding Flight 370 will negatively impact the relationship between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur. Should the relationship dim, China might shift its efforts to courting other ASEAN partners, leaving Malaysia out in the cold.
A long-term fallout seems unlikely, for two reasons. First, official Chinese admonishment of Malaysia's handling of the crisis has been predictable. It has reacted as any government would in the face of inadequate handling of a case of missing citizens abroad and demanded speedy answers. But it has also been driven by a desire to ward off questions at home. Perceived apathy on the Chinese Government's part would provoke domestic criticism, a perennial fear for Beijing. Even despite China's leading role in search efforts, some criticism has been meted out to authorities here: witness relatives at Tuesday's protest in Beijing shouting 'The Chinese and Malaysian governments are the same. They're all corrupt.'
In short, Beijing's tough talk on Malaysia is for a domestic audience. MH370 is an isolated incident; once the Chinese public comes to peace with the tragedy, the government's rhetoric will quieten down.
Secondly, the tragedy has not fundamentally altered Chinese perceptions of Malaysia. Beijing has long looked down on the countries of South East Asia as culturally and administratively inferior. MH370 has reinforced these prejudices in the case of Malaysia. Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times that:
That sense of frustration, and perhaps condescension, has come through even in official Chinese remarks that were intended to be diplomatic. On Tuesday, Huang Huikang, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, that "the Malaysian government has insufficient capabilities, technologies and experience in responding to the MH370 incident, but they did their best.
In the same article, Zhu Zhenming of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences is quoted as saying 'It's mostly to do with their administrative management capabilities, but also their culture'. For Chinese citizens, MH370 may thus boost perceived confidence in the comparative strengths of China's political and administrative system. Again, the result of the tragedy is Chinese introspection, rather than outward change in policy towards Malaysia.
China-Malaysia relations will likely continue to be dictated by the bigger regional issues: China's relationship with ASEAN, and local perceptions of China's expanding military influence. In both cases, the South China Sea dispute looms large. Malaysia has benefited from its reticence on China's territorial claims there. A change in Malaysian leaders' public statements on the dispute would do more to damage relations than MH370 ever could.
Interestingly enough, two Chinese naval exercises in less than 12 months inside Malaysia's 200nm exclusive economic zone are said to have Kuala Lumpur stepping up cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam, China's most outspoken adversaries on the issue.