The arrival board at the International Airport in Beijing, China shows a Malaysian airliner is delayed, Saturday, March 8. Pic: AP.

Troubling noises in the press about a special right for Beijing to lead the way, not Malaysia, reports Asia Sentinel

The hunt for MH370 looks like becoming another wedge to be used by China to claim hegemony in Southeast Asia. A signed commentary on March 17 by the editor of the South China Morning Post, Wang Xiangwei, makes it abundantly clear that Beijing is not just frustrated by Malaysia’s failure to find the plane but insists on its right to take a lead.

The article is headed: “Is Malaysia fit to lead search for flight 370?” and concludes with the following demand: “It is time for Beijing to step up and lead the operation using its influence to press the relevant nations to work more closely to solve the mystery”.

This is arguably not just the work of a columnist writing nonsense off the top of his head. Wang not only has very good connections in Beijing. He began his career on the state-owned China Daily and was a member of the China People’s Political Consultative Committee of Jilin Province.

His commentary coincides with a bristling editorial in the state-owned news agency Xinhua, which said the delay in providing information on what appears to be the true course of the airplane instead of a possible location somewhere in the South China Sea “a huge waste of valuable time and resources.”

It went on to say that “due to the absence — or at least lack — of timely authoritative information, massive efforts have been squandered, and numerous rumors have been spawned, repeatedly wracking the nerves of the awaiting families. Given today’s technology, the delay smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information in a full and timely manner. That would be intolerable.”

There are two dangerous implications in Wang’s column and the Xinhua editorial. The first is that because the majority of passengers were Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese from Malaysia, this gives the Beijing government a special claim to lead the search. This sounds very much like old-fashioned race-based claims to be the protector of Chinese everywhere.

The Chinese did this once before, on the Mekong River in October of 2011, when eight gunmen stormed two Chinese cargo ships in an attempt to hijack about 900,000 amphetamine pills worth more than US$3 million, murdering the Chinese crew of the two vessels. The Chinese reaction was immediate. First they suspended all shipping on the Mekong, then sent more than 200 border police to join patrols looking for the culprits – whom the patrols eventually caught. They were later executed. It was the first such joint deployment into Southeast Asia, and was regarded as a troubling expansion of China’s growing role in regional security.

This is also strikingly similar to Russia’s current claims to the right to defend the interests of ethnic Russians not merely in areas where they are a majority – Crimea and eastern Ukraine – but in other countries which were once part of the Soviet Russian empire and still have significant Russian minorities remaining from colonization under both the tsars and the commissars.

The second is Wang’s words “press the relevant nations to work more closely.” Which, one wonders, are the relevant nations supposed to share their data not with Malaysia but with China? Is this a demand on Vietnam? On India? On Thailand? How much data has China itself provided to Malaysia?

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