Malaysia's thriving China ties tested by missing plane

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Search for missing Flight MH370 March 22 and forward
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Malaysia's thriving China ties tested by missing plane
Relatives of Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 offer prayers at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. The visit to the temple comes nearly a year after Malaysian Airlines MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board in March 2014. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of one of the Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries before offering prayers at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. The visit to the temple comes nearly a year after Malaysian Airlines MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board in March 2014. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Relative of Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries as he gathers outside Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's office in Putrajaya on February 18, 2015. Chinese relatives of MH370 passengers gathered outside the Malaysian prime minister's office to demand his government rescind its declaration that all on board the plane were presumed dead. AFP PHOTO/ MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 offer prayers at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. The visit to the temple comes nearly a year after Malaysian Airlines MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board in March 2014. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Relatives of Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, cries during a protest outside the Malaysia Airlines office in Subang on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on February 12, 2015. Chinese relatives of passengers on missing flight MH370 protested outside the Malaysian Airlines office demanding Malaysia withdraw the statement that all the passengers are dead. About 15 people gathered outside the gates wearing white caps and red t-shirts with words: 'Pray for MH370.' AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
A relative of one of the Chinese passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 cries before offering prayers at Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur on March 1, 2015. The visit to the temple comes nearly a year after Malaysian Airlines MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board in March 2014. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
The Malaysian government says the plane is believed to have went down in a remote area of the Indian Ocean and everyone on board was killed.
Malaysian activists hold banners during a protest accusing US news channels of unprofessional reporting on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on April 3, 2014. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed on April 3 'we will not rest' until the fate of Flight MH370 is known, as Australia called it 'the most difficult search in human history'. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Malaysian activists hold banners during a protest accusing US news channels of unprofessional reporting on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on April 3, 2014. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed on April 3 'we will not rest' until the fate of Flight MH370 is known, as Australia called it 'the most difficult search in human history'. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 04: Chief Coordinator of the Joint Agency Coordination Centre, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston (Ret'd) addresses the media at press conference at Dumas House on April 4, 2014 in Perth, Australia. Fourteen planes and nine ships resumed in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Western Australia today. The airliner disappeared on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew on board and is suspected to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
Malaysian activists hold banners during a protest accusing US news channels of unprofessional reporting on missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, outside the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur on April 3, 2014. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak vowed on April 3 'we will not rest' until the fate of Flight MH370 is known, as Australia called it 'the most difficult search in human history'. AFP PHOTO / MANAN VATSYAYANA (Photo credit should read MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images)
Communications specialist Hidetaka Sato, on a Japan Coast Guard Gulfstream aircraft, looks out of a window searching for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 over the southern Indian Ocean on April 1, 2014. Malaysia revealed the full radio communications with the pilots of its missing flight on April 1, but the routine exchanges shed no light on the mystery as an Indian Ocean search for wreckage bore on with no end in sight. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Rob GRIFFITH (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
Page 1 of the full transcript of communications between flight MH370 and Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control released by the Malaysian defense minister on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Page 2 of the full transcript of communications between flight MH370 and Kuala Lumpur Air Traffic Control released by the Malaysian defense minister on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Malaysian officials show Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 the new search area at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on March 28, 2014. Relatives of the Chinese passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have demanded China mount its own inquiry into the disappearance, a letter shows. The document, sent to Beijing's special envoy in Kuala Lumpur, denounced Malaysia's handling of the search and asked the Chinese government to set up its own 'investigation office'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo posted to Twitter by China's CCTVNEWS of an object spotted and photographed in the new Flight MH370 search area on Friday, March 28, 2014.

The tweet read:

Picture: suspicious object spotted by New Zealand military plane on Friday. #MH370 http://t.co/KWCt1zrv2k

INDIAN OCEAN - This handout Satellite image made available by the AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Authority) shows a map of the new search area in the Indian Ocean for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 on March 28, 2014. The revised search area, 680 miles to the north of previous searches, comes after a new radar analysis suggests the jetliner may have run out of fuel sooner than first believed.
Messages from schoolchildren to Chinese relatives of passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the Metro Park Hotel in Beijing on March 28, 2014. Relatives of the Chinese passengers aboard missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have demanded China mount its own inquiry into the disappearance, a letter shows. The document, sent to Beijing's special envoy in Kuala Lumpur, denounced Malaysia's handling of the search and asked the Chinese government to set up its own 'investigation office'. AFP PHOTO/Mark RALSTON (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Malaysian Minister of Defence and Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein shows pictures of possible debris during his statement on the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at the Putra World Trade Center (PWTC) in Kuala Lumpur on March 26, 2014. Malaysia drew criticism on March 25 for its announcement that the missing passenger jet had been lost at sea, even before any wreckage was found. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN (Photo credit should read MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force AP-3C Orion arrives back at RAAF Base Peace at Bullsbrook, some 35 kms north of Perth after continuing the search for debris or wreckage of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 in the Indian Ocean, on March 26, 2014. Six countries have joined the search for the missing plane believed to have crashed in the southern Indian Ocean. AFP PHOTO/POOL/ROB GRIFFITH (Photo credit should read ROB GRIFFITH/AFP/Getty Images)
A Malaysia Airlines plane (below) prepares to go onto the runway and pass by a stationary Chinese Ilyushin 76 aircraft (top) at Perth International Airport on March 25, 2014. Wild weather halted the search on March 25 for wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines jet that crashed into the Indian Ocean, frustrating attempts to determine why it veered off course and bring closure to grieving relatives. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)
Updated search map in hunt for missing Flight MH370 on Monday, March 24, 2014.
Satellite image shared with Australian officials by China in the search for Flight MH370 on Saturday, March 22, 2014.
A Chinese woman takes a photo of a message board set up by relatives of passengers from the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at Metro Park Lido Hotel in Beijing on March 24, 2014. Ships and planes from several nations swarmed over the southern Indian Ocean on March 24 as mounting evidence of floating debris energised the search for Malaysia's missing passenger jet. AFP PHOTO/GOH CHAI HIN (Photo credit should read GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Australia's deputy prime minister said the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 cannot go on forever, and discussions are already under way between Australia, China and Malaysia as to whether to call off the hunt within weeks. No trace has been found of the Boeing 777 aircraft, which disappeared a year ago this week carrying 239 passengers and crew, in what has become one of the greatest mysteries in aviation history.
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By Stuart Grudgings and Megha Rajagopalan

(Reuters) - A torrent of criticism from China's government and people over Malaysia's handling of the search for a missing jetliner is threatening to cast a chill over one of Beijing's closer relationships in a region fraught with geopolitical rivalries.

Since Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared three weeks ago, the Southeast Asian country has faced verbal attacks from China's government, media and passengers' families angry at its perceived muddled response and poor communications.

Several Chinese celebrities have now taken up the cudgels on social media, urging their millions of followers to boycott Malaysia, threatening to worsen what seems likely to be a heavy fall in lucrative Chinese tourism.

In Malaysia, China's reaction is increasingly viewed as high-handed, excessively harsh and hypocritical as Kuala Lumpur grapples with what it sees as an unprecedented crisis.

"Do they think they are the only ones grieving over the missing plane?" wrote Malaysian Facebook user Pei Ling Gan.

"I wonder if they would speak up against their government for Tibet and Taiwan in the name of truth and justice, too."

Several high-profile Chinese celebrities, including actress Zhang Ziyi, star of the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", have lashed out at Malaysia and urged Chinese not to visit.

Grief-stricken relatives cursed and screamed at the Malaysian ambassador and other government and airline officials at news conferences in Beijing this week, accusing them of murdering their loved ones. Most passengers on the flight were Chinese.

Passengers' relatives tried to storm the Malaysian embassy in Beijing on Tuesday and were provided with buses by police afterwards, reinforcing suspicions that China's government has encouraged the outbursts in order to channel discontent over the so-far fruitless search towards Malaysia.

"The relationship between the Malaysian government and the Chinese government is quite strong. So I don't know why they are acting like this, maybe it's convenient," said Nur Jazlan Mohamed, a member of parliament for Malaysia's ruling party.

Chinese leaders have several times "demanded" action from Malaysia, while state-backed media have taken an even harsher line, going so far as questioning Malaysia's ambitions to become a developed country. Social media campaigns have struck a threatening tone, with conspiracy theories gaining popularity.

Analysts say China's leaders are mindful of domestic opinion that expects China to stand up for its citizens' interests abroad with a robustness that matches its growing clout as the world's second-largest economy.

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A long-term deterioration of ties is unlikely - both countries have too much to lose from an otherwise thriving economic relationship, analysts said. But the bad blood generated by the crisis could linger, adding to wariness in Malaysia and other Asian nations over China's rising regional power and leadership pretensions.

Beijing has a fraught relationship with many of its Southeast Asian neighbors and is party to a string of territorial disputes, particularly in the South China Sea.

"There's a lot of public relations to be done, a lot of re-engagement. There will be a dramatic dip in the relations in that sense," said Tang Siew Mun, a foreign policy specialist at Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak plans to go ahead with a visit to China in May, part of a series of exchanges that had been planned to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties.

But other events are falling victim to the outpouring of rage against Malaysia.

The Malaysia-China Chamber of Commerce would postpone some events it has been planning to mark the anniversary, said its vice president Tan Yew Sing.

Malaysian Tourism Minister Nazri Aziz said on Monday that "Visit Malaysia Year" roadshows in China would be halted until the MH370 case is closed.

Chinese travel agents have reported a slump in bookings for Malaysia. The China Daily reported on Wednesday that one large travel agency, Beijing-based China Youth Travel Service, had canceled all existing bookings with Malaysia Airlines.

Malaysia, with a Chinese ethnic minority that makes up more than a quarter of its population, has seen itself as having a special relationship with China ever since it became the first Southeast Asian country to establish diplomatic ties in 1974.

Malaysia's economic and investment ties have never been stronger with China, its largest trade partner. Najib and Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to triple two-way trade in four years to $160 billion during Xi's visit last year, when he also bestowed coveted "strategic partner" status on Malaysia and announced plans for their first joint military exercises.

"This adverse affect should be short-term," said Tan of the chamber of commerce. "It is not to the advantage of the Chinese government to let this carry on."

(Additional reporting by Anuradha Raghu in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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