Sino-Malaysian ties robust enough to overcome current tensions: Experts

Sino-Malaysian ties will hit some short-term turbulence due to tensions over the missing MH370, but the bilateral relationship is strong enough to ride out any negative impact over the long haul, say analysts.

Concerns about bilateral ties have climbed in recent days as Beijing ramped up criticisms against Kuala Lumpur over its investigations into why and how the Malaysia Airlines (MAS) plane carrying 153 Chinese nationals has gone missing since March 8.

Piqued at what they deemed to be confusing information from the Malaysian government and poor welfare by MAS officials, Chinese relatives have threatened hunger strikes, staged protests at the Malaysian embassy in Beijing, and hurled insults at the Malaysian Ambassador at briefings, with some demanding that he kneels down and apologises.

Malaysia, in turn, has become more defensive, which may not help ties, say analysts. They cited Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein's remarks on Wednesday comparing the Chinese reactions to the rational behaviour in Australia.

"The implied meaning is that the Chinese have been irrational in their behaviour. We can expect short-term impact on ties," said Dr Ian Storey, a senior fellow at Singapore's Institute of South- east Asian Studies.

People-to-people interaction has already suffered, with reports on declining Chinese tourist arrivals in Malaysia.

Jinan University's Sino-Asean expert Zhang Mingliang said bilateral ties have been affected as the MH370 incident exposed flaws in the two countries' cooperation.

"China has been pressing for more intelligence from Malaysia, which appears to be more willing to share with the United States instead," he noted.

Professor Zhang believes that the current tensions may also affect Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's planned visit to China to mark 40 years of diplomatic ties.

China, which extended the invitation during President Xi Jinping's visit to Malaysia last October, may push it back if the plane remains missing, he added.

On Wednesday, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin told reporters that the Prime Minister still plans to visit China in May when asked whether the current crisis has damaged ties with Beijing.

Pointing out that the Chinese Foreign Ministry has yet to confirm Datuk Seri Najib's visit, Prof Zhang said: "China may want to keep the option of postponing the visit open... given the adverse public sentiments."

Analysts say that if it does take place, the agenda of fostering closer political and economic links could be overshadowed, especially if the plane remains missing or probes show Malaysia is to blame.

But they also believe that the long-term prospects for the bilateral relationship remain bright, given the strong foundation built over decades.

Dr Storey said China values Malaysia as it was the first Asean country to set up diplomatic ties with Beijing on May 31, 1974. Malaysia's prime minister at the time was Mr Najib's father, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.

"You can tell that China is grateful to Malaysia because visiting Chinese leaders would always invite Najib's mother to dinners. It's a symbolic move, but it shows the Chinese really do remember and value Malaysia's act," he said.

Analysts say Beijing also wants to maintain good ties with Kuala Lumpur to tap its regional influence to repair ties soured by the South China Sea disputes between China and several Asean members, including Malaysia.

China is also aware of Malaysia's closeness to the United States, and that an overly critical stance may push it closer to Washington, particularly with US President Barack Obama scheduled to visit Kuala Lumpur next month.

For its part, Malaysia is keen to stay friendly with the Asian economic giant, now also its largest trading partner and a huge source of Chinese tourists and business investments.

"Since the early 1990s, Malaysia has put a premium on fostering good relations with China, including downplaying tensions in the South China Sea," said Dr Storey.

Citing the same reasons, Sino- Asean expert Xu Liping told The Straits Times that he believes the MH370 crisis is an isolated case that would unsettle relations slightly, but exert no long-term impact on bilateral ties.

"Channels of communication between both countries are also strong. China knows there are complicated factors, some domestic, that influence how Malaysia has handled the investigations," added the observer from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.