World / Opinion

Emerge from the shadow of the tragedy

By Yang Danzhi (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-03 07:35

Because of the contradictory information coming from the Malaysian government and Malaysia Airlines about Flight MH370, the anger of the families of the 154 Chinese passengers on the plane is growing - relatives of the missing passengers held a protest in front of the Malaysian embassy in Beijing - and there has been an outpouring of anti-Malaysia sentiments via social media in China.

With regard to these strong reactions, some Malaysian media have complained that the Chinese government is letting people blow off steam against Malaysia, and some Malaysian officials have complained that the relatives of the passengers are not rational and do not acknowledge the efforts that Malaysia has made.

In short, both in China and Malaysia, nationalist sentiment is on the rise as a result of the missing plane. This is at odds with the atmosphere that was supposed to be nurtured this year, as 2014 was designated the China-Malaysia friendship year. So it is quite urgent and necessary to analyze calmly the actual and potential influence of this incident on China-Malaysia relations.

Malaysia was the first ASEAN country to establish diplomatic ties with China, and in recent years, bilateral relations have witnessed rapid development. According to the latest data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, China-Malaysia bilateral trade for the first time topped $100 billion in 2013, reaching $106.08 billion, an increase of 11.9 percent on 2012. Malaysia has become the third Asian country, after Japan and the Republic of Korea, whose trade with China topped $100 billion, and it has been China's largest trading partner among ASEAN countries for six years in a row. In addition, the two countries have also maintained close political, military, diplomatic and cultural exchanges.

When President Xi Jinping visited Malaysia in October 2013, the two sides agreed to boost bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership. And further enhancing the level of strategic cooperation and making China-Malaysia relations to play a leading role in the region is the common expectation of both Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.

But the response of the two countries to the incident shows they need to make more efforts to implement and advance their comprehensive strategic partnership. China has more than once failed to be the first to gain important information concerning the missing plane. Malaysia admitted that it had shared with the United States data about the missing aircraft's possible course as early as March 12. The delay in informing China compromised China's search efforts. As the country suffering the largest loss of its citizens, China's request for information sharing is entirely reasonable. That it was not forthcoming reflects Malaysia's lack of trust toward China.

The China-Malaysia comprehensive strategic partnership will lose its value and will exist in name only if the two countries cannot forge mutual trust. In addition, the emotional responses of the two peoples, show the public in both countries lack the necessary knowledge about each other. Such a situation is harmful to the stability and development of bilateral relations.

On both the official and people-to-people levels, the two countries need to enhance mutual understanding, especially in terms of building trust.

Both Beijing and Kuala Lumpur are trying to stop the incident from affecting the overall bilateral relations and are trying to make it an isolated issue. But it is undeniable that the extraordinary incident has harmed bilateral relations. The two governments and the two publics will need time to overcome the negative sentiments toward each other generated by this incident.

In order to maintain the stable development of bilateral relations, both sides need to walk out of the shadow cast by this tragedy as soon as possible. Specifically, Malaysia needs to better handle the aftermath of the incident and smoothly conclude the settlement of claims, and it must provide all possible help and support for the search operations. The Chinese government needs to insist that every effort be made to locate the aircraft or what remains of it, and at the same time try to pacify the families of the victims and take the heat out of domestic nationalist sentiment.

China and Malaysia both need to establish more cooperation mechanisms, including a mechanism to deal with emergency situations. The bilateral comprehensive strategic partnership needs to be further enriched by practical initiatives rather than staying at the conceptual level. Malaysia needs to respect China's wide interests as a rising power, rather than only confining bilateral relations to the economic arena. China needs to continue to support Malaysia playing a bigger role within ASEAN and in the region. People-to-people exchanges between the two countries also need to be further advanced, and the interaction and communication between the two peoples need to be strengthened.

The author is a researcher at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Emerge from the shadow of the tragedy

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