Beijing expected to ask Malaysia's prime minister to avoid taking sides in sea dispute

Beijing expected to ask visiting Malaysian PM to avoid taking sides in South China Sea dispute

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2014, 3:43am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2014, 9:02am

When Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak lands in China today, he is likely to hear from the leadership that it would be better for Malaysia not to side with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea territorial row.

Najib's visit, which starts in Xian and ends on Sunday in Beijing, commemorates the 40th anniversary of Sino-Malaysian ties, and leaders on both sides were expected to put aside controversies overshadowing the celebrations, observers said.

They will have to convey enthusiasm for the anniversary and avoid rekindling resentment of grieving relatives of the 154 Chinese onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which vanished on March 8.

Steve Wang, a representative for the families, said they were seeking to meet Najib or other officials from the Malaysian delegation. "We want to hear some kind of explanation and an apology from Najib or his associates," he said. "But we have not received any official reply on whether such a meeting will be arranged."

Malaysia Airlines closed its family support centres for relatives in the first week of the month, and relatives who gathered in Beijing were told to leave their hotel.

In the meantime, officials from both nations have been emphasising the strength of their relationship, which was upgraded to a "comprehensive strategic partnership" in October. Ties were established in 1974, when other countries were still suspicious of the communist regime.

But sentiment among Malaysians towards China has shifted, especially after Chinese naval vessels in January ventured into waters near the disputed James Shoal, 80km off the coast of Malaysia's Sarawak state.

Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said China was eager to boost ties with Malaysia, especially as the nation would become chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) next year.

Asean is discussing a code of conduct for the South China Sea, and Beijing worries that the 10-nation bloc is taking a united stance against China while leaning closer to the United States. Malaysia might also come under fire from its neighbours if it becomes too close to Beijing.

"China is aware of such risks. One of the key messages delivered by the Chinese side is that Malaysia should not make a miscalculation," Zhang said.

"The conflict with Vietnam makes it more necessary for China to maintain stable ties with Malaysia."