While Malaysia’s handling of the loss of flight MH370 has been a public relations disaster, the saga has emphasised how much the country matters in the geopolitics of the region, particularly to China and the United States, The Economist said today.
The newsweekly observed how Putrajaya has drawn flak from international media, opposition politicians and even family members of those on board the flight, saying that one of the gravest flaws has been a deep reluctance to release information, however innocuous.
“On May 1, Putrajaya published a much-heralded report on the disappearance of the plane. This turned out to consist of just five pages, containing little new information.
“But, as one government adviser admitted: ‘If we had got this out there in the first week, there wouldn’t have been a nine-week drumbeat of everyone calling us lying b*******’,” The Economist reported, adding that on the technical side Malaysia has done an adequate job with the relatively limited means at its disposal.
The report said that one ardent supporter of Putrajaya’s handling of the search efforts was none other than President Barack Obama who visited Malaysia recently as part of his Asia "pivot".
“One person who has stood up for Malaysia over MH370 is Barack Obama. During a recent long-scheduled visit to Malaysia, the American president went out of his way to laud the country’s leadership of the search operation,” the newsweekly said.
“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. Obama got a hero’s welcome from everyone.”
The US has dished out an enormous amount of equipment, man-power and money to the search.
A Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) report published on April 4, 2014, revealed that the US navy allocated US$3.6 million (RM11.63 million) for the deployment of a pinger locator and underwater drone on the vessel that will search for the plane's black box recorders.
The Pentagon also said on April 2 that aside from the black box locators it had spent US$3.3 million on its ships and aircraft during operations to locate MH370. The search, according the SMH, has become the most expensive in aviation history.
As for China, The Economist said strengthened US-Malaysia relations will help account for its zigzag course in the MH370 affair. The flight was en route to Beijing, and over half the passengers were Chinese.
“But rather than support Putrajaya in the first month or so, China seemed to incite the distraught families into ever fiercer, often histrionic, criticism of Malaysian officialdom, perhaps to deflect attention from the possibility that the plane might have been downed by home-grown terrorists.
“The Chinese did nothing to dispel some of the alternative, wilder conspiracy theories circulating in Beijing,” The Economist said.
In fact, news agency AFP delivered an excellent critique of China’s response to MH370 in its March 18 editorial entitled “Secretive Beijing demands transparency over missing jet, say analysts”.
“China's strident calls for Malaysia to divulge all it knows about flight MH370 are in stark contrast to its own history of secretiveness when calamities have struck, such as after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake,” AFP said.
The Economist, however, reported that China’s tone towards Malaysia’s search efforts has changed.
“The Chinese ambassador to Malaysia has told the Chinese-language press in Kuala Lumpur that his country accepts that the disappearance of MH370 was not some dark conspiracy and that Chinese-Malaysian relations are unaffected.
The wave of criticism in the official Chinese press has largely abated,” it said.
“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.”
It is understood that good relations with Malaysia, and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean), will be beneficial for China, especially in the South China Sea territorial disputes.
The Economist said: “Malaysia is China’s largest trade partner in 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.” – May 9, 2014.