Moving Beyond Flight MH 370


This year, Malaysia and China are observing 40 years of bilateral cooperation based on forging closer ties between people and continuous expansion of trade and investment. Despite the recent tragedy of flight MH 370, the two governments are resolute in ensuring that the bonds of friendship and trust built over the years between them remain intact. Dr Azhari-Karim presents future prospects and challenges of the bilateral cooperation.

Malaysia and China celebrate four decades of bilateral relations this year. The two governments decided to establish diplomatic relations in 1974 following the improved security and political environment in the region. Since then, bilateral cooperation has grown in terms of trade, investment and people-to-people contacts. The visit of China’s President, Xi Jingping to Kuala Lumpur in October last year served to underline the growing significance attached by China to the relationship. In fact, during the visit both countries agreed to upgrade the status of their bilateral relations to that of a comprehensive strategic relationship. Specific targets were set for trade and investment between the two countries. In May this year, the Malaysian Prime Minister is expected to visit Beijing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Benefitting From History

Historically, Malaysia-China relations began six centuries ago with a journey that happened in the Golden Age of the Malacca Sultanate during the reign of Sultan Mahmud in the 15th century. Interestingly, in the same period, China too decided to despatch its envoy, Admiral Cheng Ho, with the largest ever assembled Armada of ships. Thus began the exchanges of visits by people of both countries, which continues till the present day.

Further exchanges between the people of both countries through migration and trade resulted in the two countries becoming more confident and trusting of one another. The coincidences of history came into the picture again to push the relationship to a new high.

In 1974, after a long hiatus resulting from historical coincidences of wars and inter-war periods around the world, the governments of both countries reached an understanding to open up to one another once again. Tun Abdul Razak, the Malaysian Prime Minister at that time, made the historic journey to China in that year. Malaysia’s principled position in her foreign policy of neutralism then had won the Chinese over and the relations were set to bloom once again.

Come 2014, a significant historical coincidence will occur during the celebration of four decades of bilateral ties. The Malaysian Prime Minister, Dato Sri Najib Tun Razak is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and make another historical journey to China to commemorate the occasion together with the Chinese.

Convergence of Interests and Perspectives

The setting for the visit is indeed spectacular for many reasons. China is Malaysia’s biggest trade partner in the world with a total seven-month volume in this year alone totalling $59.2 billion. By 2017, this figure will grow to around $160 billion. A long-term Trade Cooperation Agreement was signed between the two countries during the official visit of the Chinese President; following which Malaysia’s export of palm oil to China is expected to increase in tonnage and China’s investments in Malaysia will register a new high. Both countries also agreed to upgrade their relationship to a comprehensive strategic level.

More interestingly, the two countries agree on a mirror-pattern of development in the relationship. Peace has been instrumental in building trust and confidence in the relation and there is mutuality of interests and convergence of perspectives between the two countries. While China intends to make the process of modernisation and rejuvenation in the country a success, Malaysia wants to realise the goal of restructuring and transforming the country before the year 2020.

As to the catalyst for growth in the two countries, most surprisingly, it is not the application of power and authority, but rather the reframing of the basis of their respective spiritual and cultural roots and national identities: for Malaysia, it is Islam and for China it is Confucianism. In fact, what is common in these two great traditions and civilisations, as adopted and applied by both Malaysia and China, is the element of moderation (or in translation, ‘wassatiyah’ with the former and ‘chung yung’ in the case of the latter).

Engaging China through Moderation

To Malaysians, China represents many things. It is home of their ancestors if they are of Chinese descent. It is the land of the ‘Chinese Dream’ to come, and to others it offers hope and opportunity.

Till today, the country has not lost its greatness and sense of power. At the heart of the country’s national ethos and continued sovereignty is the practice of moderation or ‘chung yung’. With moderation, successive dynasties have battled foreign invasions and made peace with invading countries on the principles of tolerance, cooperation, mutual trust and common gains. For some time, modern China went through a tumultuous period of radicalism that ended with the excesses of the Cultural Revolution and in its place brought in new hopes with the Four Modernisations.

Today, China is also in the midst of realising another societal transformation aimed at the restoration of Chinese spiritual values drawn from the classical texts and practices of Confucianism centred on the crux of the moderation values of balance and harmony.

MH 370: Coming to Terms with the Tragedy

From day one of the search efforts for the missing flight MH 370, Malaysia, who is the owner of the plane and China, who had the highest number of passengers onboard, established a close and productive working relationship between them joined by other countries with their experts, expertise and material to help locate the missing plane. Officials and people in the past few weeks have tried to focus on pertinent issues and sift through all pieces of information to seek the truth.

As confirmation of the fate of their loved ones is eagerly awaited, the Chinese government tried hard not to allow negative feelings and emotions to take hold. Instead, as Confucius the ‘Great Teacher’ said, “they need to come to terms with their grief and accept the basic reality of the possible loss of loved ones. Only in this sense can they ever hope to endure the anxiety, pain and sorrow that follow”. On the part of Malaysian citizens, it must be recognised that the display of grief has never been the same everywhere. Cultural differences will always emerge to show people’s bereavement. Understanding these differences will certainly assist the situation.

Finally, it must be remembered that in grief only the words of encouragement and confidence can propel the joint endeavour for peace and reconciliation in relations in future.

Moral Musings in Beijing

Generally, the mood among officials and the people could be summed up as follows: angry denials, acceptance, understanding and finally, damage-control. Several explanations can be suggested for this attitude. In the first instance, the Chinese never expected that anything wrong could happen to the plane carrying more than 150 of their nationals. In an instance of self-denial, they refused to acknowledge that this could happen to them. They quickly blamed Malaysia, the country who owns the plane. More discomfortingly, China never expected Malaysia, with whom it has good relations for a long time, to simply gloss over the facts of the incident. Indeed, for them Malaysia is a country they could trust and was therefore liable in so many respects to provide all answers to the puzzling loss of the plane.

However, in the absence of hard information about the incident, the Chinese people did not rule out all possibilities. Only patience and hope could relieve the pain and sorrow of this sad period in their lives. Arising from the above, acceptance was believed to be the better option in the face of an uncertain fate for their loved ones. For the Chinese used to a life of continuous upheavals and tumultuous change in the past, this calamity will soon pass by. In fact, this strength has always characterised the Chinese national resilience in the face of disasters, either man-made or otherwise.

With acceptance, thirdly, came understanding and an appreciation to what has been slowly developing in the search and rescue efforts that were put in place by Malaysia and 26 other countries, including China. It dawned upon them that only with closer coordination among countries, will there be any hope of unravelling the mystery of the missing flight MH 370. It was at this point when the search operation entered its second month, the Chinese authorities began to commit extra resources, technology and people to help bring the whole episode to its rightful end. Consequently, at home and abroad, the Chinese government’s successful activities at damage-control greatly assisted in bringing some calm to prevail and emotion-laden tensions to subside.

With the confidence and the usual Chinese resolve in full view of the world, we can now look forward to a period of moral musings among Chinese on the practical lessons to be learned from the tragic episode. A greater part of the Chinese acceptance of the whole tragedy has been due to the practice of the values of moderation.

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