| KUALA LUMPUR/BEIJING, March 28
KUALA LUMPUR/BEIJING, March 28 A torrent of
criticism from China's government and people over Malaysia's
handling of the search for a missing jetliner is threatening to
cast a chill over one of Beijing's closer relationships in a
region fraught with geopolitical rivalries.
Since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared
three weeks ago, the Southeast Asian country has faced verbal
attacks from China's government, media and passengers' families
angry at its perceived muddled response and poor communications.
Several Chinese celebrities have now taken up the cudgels on
social media, urging their millions of followers to boycott
Malaysia, threatening to worsen what seems likely to be a heavy
fall in lucrative Chinese tourism.
In Malaysia, China's reaction is increasingly viewed as
high-handed, excessively harsh and hypocritical as Kuala Lumpur
grapples with what it sees as an unprecedented crisis.
"Do they think they are the only ones grieving over the
missing plane?" wrote Malaysian Facebook user Pei Ling Gan.
"I wonder if they would speak up against their government
for Tibet and Taiwan in the name of truth and justice, too."
Several high-profile Chinese celebrities, including actress
Zhang Ziyi, star of the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon",
have lashed out at Malaysia and urged Chinese not to visit.
Grief-stricken relatives cursed and screamed at the
Malaysian ambassador and other government and airline officials
at news conferences in Beijing this week, accusing them of
murdering their loved ones. Most passengers on the flight were
Passengers' relatives tried to storm the Malaysian embassy
in Beijing on Tuesday and were provided with buses by police
afterwards, reinforcing suspicions that China's government has
encouraged the outbursts in order to channel discontent over the
so-far fruitless search towards Malaysia.
"The relationship between the Malaysian government and the
Chinese government is quite strong. So I don't know why they are
acting like this, maybe it's convenient," said Nur Jazlan
Mohamed, a member of parliament for Malaysia's ruling party.
Chinese leaders have several times "demanded" action from
Malaysia, while state-backed media have taken an even harsher
line, going so far as questioning Malaysia's ambitions to become
a developed country. Social media campaigns have struck a
threatening tone, with conspiracy theories gaining popularity.
Analysts say China's leaders are mindful of domestic opinion
that expects China to stand up for its citizens' interests
abroad with a robustness that matches its growing clout as the
world's second-largest economy.
A long-term deterioration of ties is unlikely - both
countries have too much to lose from an otherwise thriving
economic relationship, analysts said. But the bad blood
generated by the crisis could linger, adding to wariness in
Malaysia and other Asian nations over China's rising regional
power and leadership pretensions.
Beijing has a fraught relationship with many of its
Southeast Asian neighbours and is party to a string of
territorial disputes, particularly in the South China Sea.
"There's a lot of public relations to be done, a lot of
re-engagement. There will be a dramatic dip in the relations in
that sense," said Tang Siew Mun, a foreign policy specialist at
Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak plans to go ahead with
a visit to China in May, part of a series of exchanges that had
been planned to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties.
But other events are falling victim to the outpouring of
rage against Malaysia.
The Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce would postpone some
events it has been planning to mark the anniversary, said its
vice president Tan Yew Sing.
Malaysian Tourism Minister Nazri Aziz said on Monday that
"Visit Malaysia Year" roadshows in China would be halted until
the MH370 case is closed.
Chinese travel agents have reported a slump in bookings for
Malaysia. The China Daily reported on Wednesday that one large
travel agency, Beijing-based China Youth Travel Service, had
cancelled all existing bookings with Malaysia Airlines.
Malaysia, with a Chinese ethnic minority that makes up more
than a quarter of its population, has seen itself as having a
special relationship with China ever since it became the first
Southeast Asian country to establish diplomatic ties in 1974.
Malaysia's economic and investment ties have never been
stronger with China, its largest trade partner. Najib and
Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to triple two-way trade in
four years to $160 billion during Xi's visit last year, when he
also bestowed coveted "strategic partner" status on Malaysia and
announced plans for their first joint military exercises.
"This adverse affect should be short-term," said Tan of the
chamber of commerce. "It is not to the advantage of the Chinese
government to let this carry on."
(Additional reporting by Anuradha Raghu in Kuala Lumpur;
Editing by Alex Richardson)