Let’s acknowledge what’s obvious: The way Malaysia has handled the loss of Flight 370 has been pathetic. What’s less obvious is China’s role in this sorry spectacle.
The biggest aviation mystery since Amelia Earhart disappeared isn’t over for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, and it may never be. Not with the families of the 154 Chinese passengers (out of 239 people) on board the missing Malaysian Air jet accusing his government of a coverup. Not with puzzled observers around the world wondering how a government of a reasonably developed nation could be so inept. And not with Malaysians looking at a ruling elite that’s turned crisis management into a management crisis.
The biggest reason the fallout from Flight 370 may not be over for a long time might be because of China. Maybe the government of Asia’s most important economy really is livid at Malaysia’s handling of this tragedy. It’s hard not to think there also are ulterior motives at work.
Yes, Malaysia deserves plenty of blame, dragging out this painful human tragedy for too long. It took 16 days for its leaders to admit what most of the rest of the world figured out long ago: there would be no survivors of a plane crash somewhere far out in the Indian Ocean. In the interim, tales of stolen passports, confused and contradictory statements, fantastic theories about which political party the pilot supported, obfuscation about the Boeing 777’s cargo and daily press briefings by Hishammuddin Hussein — a man who should never again be allowed near a microphone — has tarnished Malaysia’s global brand for years to come. Malaysian Air telling some families that Flight 370 had “ended” was an added insult.
Yet China is doing its best to foster a sense of aggrievement, as if it has been intentionally wronged by this tragic accident. This is part of a broader pattern of exploiting international incidents for domestic gain.
Think back to 1999, when NATO forces accidentally bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade, or 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet and U.S. spy plane collided: China displayed a remarkable tolerance for public protests.
Again in 2012, police stood by as protesters surrounded the car of then-U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. Or take the giant anti-Japanese demonstrations of recent years. Small wonder Japan’s tourists now head to Taiwan and Hong Kong rather than Shanghai or Beijing.
China, of course, is a nation with little tolerance for civil disobedience or protests, particularly in central Beijing. Anyone who has strolled through Tiananmen Square could be excused for wondering if they had been transported to North Korea’s desolate capital, Pyongyang. But for the Communist Party, pointing fingers at foreigners supposedly doing China harm is an ideal way to deflect attention from corruption scandals, income inequality and toxic pollution. It doesn’t take much to suspect that this is what is driving much of the outcry over the loss of Flight 370.
It’s certainly not as if the control freaks who run China would have been more transparent than Malaysia’s leaders. More competent and efficient, perhaps. But more forthcoming or doing anything that might risk giving any clues about its military-reconnaissance capabilities? Not a chance.
But what is China’s end game here? Are Chinese leaders really supporting the interests of the mourning families? Perhaps, but something else might be at play. Tolerating protests where demonstrators bellow wildly and irresponsible chants like “the Malaysian government are murderers” suggest that China senses an opportunity to claim the high ground from a rival for territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China has proven quite adept at getting and keeping such moral trump cards in its back pocket. Don’t be surprised if the country’s Communist Party leaders make a big deal of their Flight 370 grievance the next time they find themselves in a dispute with Malaysia.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo. Follow him on Twitter at @williampesek.