TIME MH370

What the Missing-Jet Tragedy Shows About China’s Attitude Toward Southeast Asia

Search Resumes For Missing Flight MH370
Chinese special envoy Zhang Yesui leaves after a meeting with Malaysian officials on March 26, 2014 in Kuala Lumpur. He is tasked with asking Malaysia to "properly handle" the investigation into the fate of MH370 Rahman Roslan—Getty Images

In its response to the ongoing search for MH 370, China's big-brotherly stance and political interest in the region are made plain

Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi has weighed in on the tragedy surrounding the missing Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, carrying 153 Chinese nationals out of the 239 passengers and crew.

“Malaysia’s government, you are wrong not to take due responsibility [before] the international community,” wrote Zhang, 35, on her Sina Weibo microblogging account. “You are wrong not to revere life. You are wrong not to respect the universal quest for truth.”

Zhang — best known to foreign audiences through her roles in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Memoirs of a Geisha — joined a chorus of Chinese celebrities condemning the Malaysian government for its investigation into how MH 370 may have ended up lost in the southern Indian Ocean. TV host Yang Lan, who also enjoys a strong social-media presence, wrote, “My heart is intertwined with grief and anger. What are Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysia military hiding?”

Their voices echoed that of the Chinese government, which has demanded more information from the Malaysian authorities, as they struggle to solve one of aviation’s most vexing mysteries.

On March 26, a special envoy appointed by China’s President Xi Jinping met with Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak. The senior Chinese diplomat, Zhang Yesui, was in Kuala Lumpur to “consult with Malaysian authorities, learn about the situation, and ask the Malaysian side to properly handle related issues,” according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency. On March 25, the Chinese government allowed a rare protest in Beijing by families of some MH 370 passengers, who marched toward the Malaysian embassy to vent their anger over the Malaysian investigation into the vanished airliner. To think that 2014 was supposed to serve as “China-Malaysia Friendship Year.”

China’s attitude toward Southeast Asia has tended to swing between big-brotherly authority and an avuncular interest in aiding fellow developing nations. (Caribbean countries might recognize these alternating approaches from the U.S. during the Monroe Doctrine days.) Historically, some Southeast Asian nations served as tributary states that dispatched treasures for the Chinese Emperor. Vietnam was essentially colonized by imperial China for about a millennium. Much like European powers associated their colonies with particular exports — rubber from British Malaya or nutmeg from the Dutch East Indies — the ancient Chinese grew to know Vietnam for its rhino horn and Burma for its jade.

Even in senior foreign policy circles, Chinese today refer to Southeast Asian states as “little countries.” That may be strictly true, but size hasn’t stopped nations like Vietnam and the Philippines from standing up in territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea. Beijing considers most of the vast waterway its own and has more assertively staked its claim on the resource-rich deeps.

Malaysia, another South China Sea claimant, has taken a quieter approach. With a large ethnic Chinese population, Malaysia was the first among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to recognize the communist government as the rightful ruler of China. But the Malaysian government may be reassessing how far Beijing will go in pursuing its South China Sea claims. In January, as Chinese naval vessels conducted exercises off the Malaysian part of Borneo, Kuala Lumpur discreetly reached out to other Southeast Asian claimants at odds with Beijing over the South China Sea. Last year, Malaysia announced intentions to build a base near an underwater reef around which Chinese warships have cruised.

Economics are weighted in Beijing’s favor across Southeast Asia. Malaysia, for instance, counts China as its biggest trading partner, yet Malaysia is only China’s third largest in Asia. In the wake of the MH 370 tragedy, Chinese tourism to Malaysia has taken a hit, precisely at a time when Kuala Lumpur was selling a “Visit Malaysia Year.”

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that in 2013 more foreign-direct investment headed to Southeast Asia as a whole than did to China. Last year, as U.S. President Barack Obama canceled a second Asia trip because of domestic troubles, China’s Xi swooped in, arriving in Kuala Lumpur with promises of a special trading relationship. The Chinese President’s largesse was welcomed. But another diplomatic charm offensive was launched last year as well. Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has pushed into Southeast Asia, vowing trade and military expertise to offset China’s influence. In fact, since coming to power in December 2012, the Japanese PM has visited every single one of the ASEAN states.

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