04/03/2014 01:08 EDT | Updated 06/03/2014 05:59 EDT

What Flight MH370 Has Done to Malaysia-China Relations

China's critical pronouncements on Malaysia's handling of the search for the lost MH370 aircraft are resulting in a precipitous decline in relations between the two countries. The Malaysia Airlines flight was carrying 153 Chinese out of the 239 in total on board when it disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpar to Beijing.

Taking its cue from anguished and angry relatives of the Chinese on board, the Chinese government has not only charged Malaysian authorities with incompetence, it has also accused them of not disclosing information in a timely manner and actively withholding evidence. This may strike many as a bit rich, coming from a country hardly known for its openness, be it about the outcome of disasters, outbreak of disease, or contamination of food.

As Malaysia tried to deal with the grief and emotions of the passengers' families, China's official diplomacy went on the attack, complicating an already unprecedented and difficult situation.

The Malaysians have been far from perfect in handling this crisis, but there is little evidence of bad faith or conspiracy. In such situations, it is essential that information is properly verified before it is made public. Yet even after the Malaysian Prime Minister announced that MH370 crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, based on evidence provided by Inmarsat, a British satellite communications firm, the families and Chinese authorities continued to demand hard evidence.

There have clearly been security lapses which need explanation -- as much to Malaysians as to anybody else. And at the outset, the crisis management could have been better coordinated. However, there is no indication there is something that could have been done to alter the realities of this tragedy.

When the plane performed a U-turn away from its scheduled destination of Beijing, all ground communication with it had been lost. The capture on Malaysian Air Force radar of an unidentified flying object in Malaysian airspace in the early hours of March 9, an event that passed without immediate national security reaction, needs full explanation. But by then the aircraft had in all probability become a missile which could just as well have crashed into the Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers as it did into the southern Indian Ocean.

Yes, there were an additional six hours or so that it continued flying before crashing. Could it have been stopped? Who, if anyone, was at the controls? Were those on board still alive, given the drop in altitude on U-turn from cruising height?

All these questions and more can only be determined if the wreckage and black box are discovered, which as all involved in the search have admitted, is a mammoth task. Even then, it is unlikely that all the questions will be answered.

It is profoundly unfair to blame Malaysian authorities for all these imponderables in a calamity of this magnitude. The international cooperation that has informed the mission of discovery, in which the Chinese are also involved, is a beacon of light in this dark catastrophe.

But why has Chinese diplomacy targeted the Malaysian authorities so harshly?

One answer is that Beijing is captive to populist pressure. Of course the Chinese authorities had to react to the anger and frustration of the relatives, but the official diplomacy has gone far further than what might have been expected. As has been the case in maritime incidents in the past in the East and South China Sea, Beijing seems either unable or disinclined to fashion a more measured response. Yet fierce protection of the Chinese people abroad cannot obscure the violation of their rights at home.

There was a demand by the relatives in Beijing for the Malaysian ambassador to kneel before them. Would the Chinese authorities also insist on this? A call was made for sanctions to be imposed on Malaysia. What for? Netizens have campaigned for Malaysian artists popular in China, like Michelle Yeoh, to be boycotted. Not to mention, of course, Malaysia itself, and trade with it.

China is Malaysia's top trading partner, and is in turn third in Asia for China, after Japan and Korea. All of this rancor must disturb the region. The hitherto positive bilateral relations with Malaysia were already being tested by Chinese incursions into the Malaysian exclusive economic zone near the Sarawak coast in contested areas of the South China Sea. This despite Malaysia dialing down the dispute it has with China, along with three other ASEAN states, now four with Indonesia counting itself as also involved in China's extensive claims.

Clearly, those Malaysians who believed close relations with China would make it more likely to quietly work through bilateral difficulties have been too sanguine. China is becoming a great power that will assert its interests without special favours and which, worryingly, is all too often captive to raw and unreasoning nationalism.

For Malaysia, there are lessons to be learned. There is little doubt, even more than when the tragedy first struck the nation and the airline, MH370 is a rite of passage with deep and enduring significance.


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