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Is Malaysia-China 'panda diplomacy' wavering?

Malaysia's missing jetliner and closer ties to US have strained four-decade relations with China.

Last updated: 31 May 2014 08:43
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To celebrate 40 years of positive relations, China gave Malaysia two giant pandas [AFP]

Hidden away in their multi-million dollar, bespoke, air-conditioned home in a prime spot of the national zoo, Malaysia's newest VIPs won't make their public debut for a month.

But in a country with a fair few of its own iconic species, giant pandas Feng Yi and Fu Wa are drawing plenty of attention.

"They come to Malaysia as a symbol of the friendly relations between China and Malaysia," said Huang Huikang, China's ambassador to Malaysia, ahead of a lavish celebration in a Kuala Lumpur hotel to celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations. "They are also a special envoy of the Chinese people to better promote understanding and close cooperation between our two great countries."

Or, as Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak puts it, "symbols of peace".

When Malaysia established diplomatic ties with Communist China on May 31, 1974, it was the first Southeast Asian country to do so. These days it's China's biggest trading partner in the region and millions of Chinese tourists holiday in the country each year. But the disappearance of MH370 nearly three months ago on a flight to Beijing - with 153 Chinese on board - changed the mood. When the pandas' arrival was delayed by a few weeks many wondered, despite Chinese denials, whether there might be a connection.

"There's been a souring of relations with China," said Munir Majid, a Malaysian expert in international affairs who now chairs the CIMB ASEAN Research Institute in Kuala Lumpur. "There is this populist pressure on the government... . Very demonstrative, assertive language (is being) used in demanding this and demanding that. That has obviously had an impact on how Malaysians feel, including at the government level."

Deteriorating relations?

The passengers' families, understandably distraught, were allowed to march on the Malaysian embassy in Beijing, a rare show of public protest in the tightly controlled communist country. Some of the meetings with Malaysian diplomats and airline officials turned ugly; at one, Chinese officials found themselves pelted with water bottles. Some accused the Malaysian authorities of lying or even murder. State-run newspapers published hard-hitting editorials criticising Malaysia's search and rescue efforts. The Chinese ambassador even appeared at a packed press conference in Kuala Lumpur, taking a seat directly in front of the Malaysian officials. 

In early April, analyst Chandra Muzaffar, who is a professor at Malaysia's Science University, noted that many in Malaysia felt "deeply disappointed with the hostility and antagonism shown by some sectors of Chinese society".

While few were surprised at the criticism from the international media, the response from the Chinese caught Malaysians off-guard. They considered China a friend and thought China looked at Malaysia in the same way.

Malaysia is China's oldest friend in this region.

- Keith Leong, KRA Group

"There is no denying that over the last 40 years, Malaysia has emerged as one of China's most trusted friends," Chandra wrote in a column for the Canada-based Centre for Research on Globalisation. "It is imperative that China demonstrates greater sensitivity towards its neighbours. It should never be seen as a nation with a narrow, blinkered view of its own interests with little empathy for the honour and dignity of other people, especially those who are its true and tested friends."

Last October, when Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Malaysia, he reached for a Malay proverb, "flowing water cannot be severed", to illustrate the depth and strength of the two countries' relationship. Both sides looked back to the close ties established between the Malacca Sultanate and the Ming Dynasty more than 600 years ago to highlight the point. About a quarter of Malaysia's population is ethnic Chinese.

By the end of the visit the two governments had vowed to increase bilateral trade to $160bn by 2017, encourage more educational exchange - Xiamen University will open the first international campus of any Chinese institution in Malaysia next year - and step up the development of joint industrial parks in each country.

Malaysia also agreed to more military exchanges and security cooperation despite rising concern in Southeast Asia about China's claim to the whole of the South China Sea. Though Malaysia too claims part of the area, it has taken a less assertive approach than the Philippines and Vietnam.

"China needs friends in the region and Malaysia is China's oldest friend in this region," noted Keith Leong, an analyst at KRA Group, a public affairs consulting company in Kuala Lumpur.

Role of the United States

Multi-ethnic but mostly Muslim Malaysia has also had a sometimes difficult relationship with the US, but in May, Barack Obama became the first US president to visit the country since 1966.

China will have noticed that US-Malaysia relations over the past few years have improved dramatically and that the two leaders agreed to establish a comprehensive partnership.

- Murray Hiebert, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Officials rolled out the red carpet. Obama received a warm welcome at parliament - although he met only government MPs - attended a state dinner with the king and hosted a town hall meeting with young people from around the region. His every movement was covered in newspapers, on television and across social media, even as the president called for greater respect for human rights.

At a joint press conference, Obama pledged his country's continued assistance in the hunt for MH370 and PM Razak acknowledged in a public statement, for the first time, that countries involved in territorial disputes over the South China Sea, which is thought to hold significant deposits of oil and gas, had the right to take their case to international arbitration.

"China will have noticed that US-Malaysia relations over the past few years have improved dramatically and that the two leaders agreed to establish a comprehensive partnership," said Murray Hiebert, senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. "China may have decided it didn't want to open a new front in Southeast Asia at a time when its relations with the Philippines and Vietnam are already tense."

Certainly, there's been a noticeable softening in recent weeks.

Najib is visiting China May 27 to June 1, with an entourage of 300 people including members of his cabinet and a coterie of businessmen. He'll stop in the ancient capital of Xian to view the terracotta warriors, and visit the Great Mosque and a halal food fair.

"The Chinese government is paying much attention to [Najib's] visit and has made every effort to make sure his visit is a success," the Chinese ambassador said last week. "If you are talking about a possible negative impact from MH370, from the very beginning, the Chinese government and the Chinese people stand firmly, side by side, with Malaysia."

In Beijing, the prime minister will attend an economic summit, tour the Malay Institute of the Foreign Language University and drop in on telecommunications giant Huawei.

Back at the Zoo, the facilities have had a makeover and some of the animals have seen improvements to their enclosures, but the pandas look set to become the star attraction for the next few months at least.

Najib and Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, the public face of the search for MH370, both visited Feng Yi and Fu Wa last weekend, posting photos of themselves with the animals on social media.

"Soooooo cute," cooed Hishamuddin on his Twitter feed. "I am in love."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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