PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 4:01am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 July, 2014, 4:01am

MH17 and Israel's Gaza invasion highlight historical disconnect

Philip Bowring says reactions to the crash of MH17 and Israel's bloody invasion of Gaza highlight the historical disconnect nations and people have felt towards one another


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal,, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

The past 10 days have been depressing not just because of two very public outrages, the downing of flight MH17 and the Gaza war, but also because of the many disconnects in international relationships they raise. One of those relates to Hong Kong.

The plane disaster was marked by the curious unwillingness of the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, to place the blame where it so clearly belonged. The Netherlands and Australia showed no such reluctance so Malaysia's silence was all the more surprising, given that the downing was another blow to the country, its airline and tourism, in addition to the many bereavements it was suffering.

Najib defended his position, saying that it enabled negotiation with the rebels over access and the return of bodies. It was claimed that Malaysia somehow had a neutral position in international affairs, which enabled it to talk to the Russians and Ukrainian rebels. This was a dubious claim, but it has been widely accepted by those who know little of Malaysian politics.

Influencing Najib's ultra-cautious stance was support within his ruling party, Umno, for some of the bizarre theories that circulate in Malaysia ascribing all manner of disasters to US, Zionist or general Western actions. These are not the ravings of a lunatic fringe but given credence by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, a behind-the-scenes critic of Najib.

At the time of the disappearance of MH370, Mahathir blogged that it was probably some kind of CIA plot. Now there is widespread belief among Malays close to the still influential Mahathir camp that MH17 was a Western plot meant to denigrate Moscow.

Not a strong leader, Najib prefers not to confront his critics within the ruling party.

All this seems doubly bizarre given that Malaysia has a long history of military cooperation with the US, which was recently strengthened at the time of President Barack Obama's visit to Kuala Lumpur in April. Trade relations are also strong, with Malaysia joining the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But there is a key to Malaysia's schizophrenia: Palestine. An Umno-backed demonstration in Kuala Lumpur calling for justice for the victims of MH17 and prosecution of those found responsible also featured banners calling for justice for the people of Gaza and attacking the murderous Israeli campaign.

So many Malays are blinded by their loathing of US support for Israel into believing in broader theories of US conspiracies - and not just against Muslims. But the US is equally blinded by domestic politics into supporting a country that has long been behaving contrary to many of the principles the US is supposed to hold dear. The sight of the US secretary of state trekking back and forth across the Middle East making a show of peacemaking is regarded with derision by much of the world, which knows that without US financial and military support, without the long string of US vetoes of UN resolutions, Israel would never have been able to continue the occupation of much of the Palestinian territories, the settlement of Arab lands and the ethnic cleansing of the Golan Heights.

The West Bank barrier, the racist constitution, the historical myths used to justify expansionism are not the imaginings of believers in Jewish conspiracy theories. They are the reality faced by the non-Jewish populations. And it is Israeli scholars, writers and reporters who have proven the most honest and accurate evidence against the actions of their government.

The attack on Gaza to try to end the petty missile attacks that Hamas, out of desperation rather than any ability to hurt Israel, has launched is out of proportion even by Israel's bloody standards. But it is a reminder of the pitiful condition of the 1.8 million people of Gaza. Today six million Israeli Jews rule directly or indirectly over about 5.5 million Palestinian Arabs.

The Palestinian issue is also a reminder of how Britain created the problem in the first place, offering in 1917 to make a "national home" for the Jewish people in Palestine, then in 1947, under US pressure, walked away from it, leading to the first of many wars.

Hong Kong had a happier end to British administration, but London still prefers to walk away from its responsibilities. It is understandable that China argues that Britain has no business to interfere in Hong Kong, a sovereign part of China. But the current British government shows every sign of wanting to please China by doing almost nothing to press it on some of the specific promises in the Joint Declaration, a 1984 treaty between the two nations.

This is partly the naïve assumption that it will help business. But behind it, too, is a British Foreign Office attitude that dates to 1967 when the British embassy was ransacked and diplomats frightened out of their wits by Red Guards protesting at the jailing of leftists causing mayhem in Hong Kong.

The mantra: obligations to Hong Kong come second to relations with Beijing. It reached its apogee in Percy Cradock's effort to undermine Chris Patten's belated moves to more representative government. It is parroted today by the various ex-diplomats who make a living as China business consultants.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator


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