KUALA LUMPUR, May 10 — China is altering its bristly disposition towards Malaysia over the handling of the Flight MH370 after a landmark visit by US President Barack Obama here reminded the Asian superpower of its need for allies in the region, according to The Economist.
The London-based business weekly noted that Beijing has increasingly softened its tone towards Putrajaya, at which it has been largely critical and sometimes accusatory since the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight, as it comes to grips with the realities of the regional politics.
Among others, it noted a gradual reduction of scathing language used by the state-owned media over Malaysia’s handling of the crisis, while China’s ambassador to Malaysia has also come out to smooth over ruffled feathers in Putrajaya.
“Perhaps China feels, in the regional battle of wills with America, that it needs good relations with Malaysia and that these were threatened by its attacks. Malaysia is China’s largest trade partner in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean).
“It also has a large ethnic-Chinese population, and thus could be helpful in its disputes in the South China Sea with other Asean countries, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, both firmly backed by America,” The Economist wrote in an editorial titled “Having bashed Malaysia over the missing flight, China is now making up”.
It noted that while China has been needling Malaysia over the search for the missing plane, the US has been an unwavering partner from the start.
The Western superpower was among the very first nations to send aid for the search, deploying assets from its Seventh Fleet soon after the plane vanished on March 8.
And while it initially set aside a budget of US$3 million (RM10 million) for the hunt, it has since racked up a bill of nearly four times the amount supplying vital assets for what has become the most expensive search operation in history, without seeking recompense.
“This has brought the two countries closer, at a time when America is searching for new and reinvigorated alliances in the region.
“Historically, there has been a good deal of anti-Americanism in Muslim-majority Malaysia, but for the time being that seems to have been stilled. Mr Obama got a hero’s welcome from everyone,” The Economist noted.
Obama arrived in Malaysia for an official visit on April 26 and became the first serving US president to do so since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.
The US is also paying greater attention to the region as part of Obama’s “pivot” to Asia policy.
China will have an opportunity to rekindle a relationship that had been increasingly balmy up until March 8, when Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak travels to Beijing this month to commemorate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two nations that were started coincidentally by the visit of his father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.
“With power so finely balanced in the region, China will strive to make the visit go smoothly, including keeping angry families at a face-saving distance.”
The Chinese have been highly critical of Malaysia since news of MH370's disappearance hit headlines across the globe.
Among others, they have alleged that Malaysian authorities are covering-up mistakes made in the early days of MH370's disappearance to avoid perceptions of bungled investigations.
Beijing also allowed open protests against Malaysia in the tightly-regulated capital city, which was interpreted as the state’s sanction for the demonstrations remonstrating with the southeast Asian nation.
It also delayed sending over two giant pandas to Malaysia to commemorate four decades of official ties, a gesture seen as an expression of Beijing’s unhappiness over MH370.
Putrajaya also began lashing back at China over the repeated criticisms, regularly pointing to the false lead that the country provided through satellite images purporting to be parts of MH370 in the South China Sea in the days after the plane disappeared.
MH370 disappeared after leaving Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on March 8 with 239 people — 153 of them Chinese nationals — on board.
After two months of intensive search, the hunt has now been scaled back to an undersea operation in the southern Indian Ocean west of Australia that is expected to take between eight to 12 months.