The historic signing of a peace agreement between the government of the Philippines and its largest Muslim rebel group on Thursday was a much-needed piece of good news for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak who was instrumental in brokering the landmark deal. The Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), which officially brings an end to hostilities between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), is the culmination of over a decade of mediation efforts by Kuala Lumpur. It is also a well-timed diplomatic coup for Najib in the midst of perhaps the biggest international embarrassment ever for the Malaysian government.
His government has come under extreme (and unprecedented) scrutiny following its bungled response to the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. The now three-week-old mystery of the fate of the flight, which was en route to Beijing, has kept the international spotlight focused on Malaysia, while the opaque, contradictory nature of its government’s investigation has sparked criticism from around the world. With the majority of the 239 people aboard the flight coming from China, Beijing has taken an especially keen interest in pressing for answers and has grown visibly frustrated with Kuala Lumpur’s approach to the investigation.
Earlier this week, families of some of the Chinese passengers aboard the flight staged an impromptu march to Malaysia’s embassy in Beijing, in a rare public protest that, while not officially sanctioned by the government, was nonetheless allowed to proceed by security forces. Meanwhile, notable Chinese celebrities like Zhang Ziyi and Chen Kun have very publicly denounced Malysia, with Chen even appealing for a boycott that has already received the support of over 20,000 Weibo users. Beijing has taken care to appear on the right side of these protests calls, highlighting its growing anger towards Kuala Lumpur with increasingly less diplomatic rhetoric around the plane inquiry.
The tensions certainly raise pressure on Najib who should be gearing up for some disappointment around two notable recent drives by his government: “Visit Malaysia Year” and “China-Malaysia Friendship Year” both of which were intended to capitalize on the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two states to attract greater numbers of Chinese travelers to Malaysia. While the outlook for Malaysia’s tourist industry might not be the rosiest, Kuala Lumpur can, at least, bank on its strategic significance to Beijing, which has been making efforts to expand its influence in the region as a counterbalance to Japan.
As a vital partner on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China will undoubtedly try to contain tensions with Malaysia over the missing flight so as not to cause any lasting diplomatic damage. The subtle overtures Tokyo has been making in the wake of the tragedy (including baffling assurances to the press about Kuala Lumpur’s timely cooperation on the matter) should be ringing alarm bells for Beijing. So while the international backlash continues, Malaysia can take some solace in the enduring soundness of its regional political standing, boosted as it is by timely reminders of its influence, as in the case of Thursday’s landmark agreement next door.