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Lucrative China-Malaysia relations not derailed by search for MH370

By Pamela Boykoff and Chan Kok Leong, CNN
updated 9:26 PM EDT, Sun April 6, 2014
Many Chinese relatives of passengers who traveled on MH370 have been unhappy with the Malaysian government.
Many Chinese relatives of passengers who traveled on MH370 have been unhappy with the Malaysian government.
  • Chinese officials have been careful not to blame Malaysia for the fate of MH370
  • This is contrast to many of the Chinese relatives of passengers
  • Trade between China and Malaysia grew to more than US$63.4 billion last year

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (CNN) -- If the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 caused a rift in China-Malaysia relations, the two countries appear to have put it behind them.

Recent comments by officials in both Kuala Lumpur and Beijing have emphasized the active cooperation between the two countries, while also downplaying accusations lodged by Chinese families against the Malaysian government.

According to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post, China's Ambassador to Malaysia sought to distance these "radical views" from his country's official position. They "do not represent the views of Chinese people and the Chinese government," he was quoted as saying.

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Some of the Chinese relatives of passengers aboard the missing Boeing 777 have been openly critical of the investigation. They went so far as to release a statement calling the Malaysian government and its military the "real murderers" of their loved ones.

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In a press conference Saturday, Acting Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein made it clear China will be an accredited member of the investigation team. A few days earlier, he spoke about Malaysia's duty to keep its Asian neighbor informed about all progress.

James Chin, professor of political science at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said the rift always appeared larger in the media than at an official level. "I think among the diplomats they do understand this is just a small thing within the larger context of Malaysia-China relations and this will not alter relationships in the long term."

Trade partners

At stake between the two countries is a thriving economic relationship. According to Malaysia's Ministry of International Trade, China was Malaysia's largest trading partner for the fifth consecutive year in 2013. Trade between the two countries that year grew by 12.5% to US $63.4 billion.

Tourism numbers were equally positive, with 1.79 million people visiting from China last year -- an increase of 14.9% from the previous year.

Ramon Navaratnam, former Secretary General of the Malaysian Ministry of Transport, said he did not expect trade between the two countries to deteriorate, despite the initial protests by some of the Chinese families of missing passengers on MH370 in Beijing.

"I don't see it happening as the Chinese authorities, especially their envoy (Huang Huikang) to Malaysia, has given very measured statements and not blamed Malaysia for MH370," said Navaratnam, who is currently the chairman of the Center for Public Policy Studies at the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute.

Navaratnam, who has authored several books on economics in Malaysia, said the business environment would not change unless the governments decided otherwise.

Lee Hwok Aun, an economics lecturer at the University of Malaya, agreed bilateral trade is not expected to fall off as Malaysia's primary exports to China consist of electrical components and raw materials such as crude rubber and palm oil -- critical to China's own economy.

"Tourism may suffer some minor setbacks initially but exports won't change much as China needs raw materials," said Lee. "It's much harder to organize a boycott of component imports and China too wants a steady supply chain."

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