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For Malaysia, MH370 Spells Diplomatic Disaster

A Malaysian Aircraft – a new symbol for disquieting failures in Malaysia’s management.

The South China Sea is home to several island chains rich with resources, land and influence. China and Malaysia are two of the major players involved in these disputes. The Obama Administration has chosen to make Malaysia a regional power and support the developing nation’s efforts to contest Chinese dominance. However, Malaysia’s international image as a helpful counterweight to China has been proven false through the terribly mishandled investigation for Flight 370 as well as questionable economic and political policies. Malaysia’s share of problems should negate its desired role as a regional power and should deter the United States from placing all its trust and hopes in one troubled nation. The United States has shown interest in boosting Malaysia’s standing as a regional power in the South China Sea so it can challenge China on issues like the Spratly Island disputes, which have slowly escalated in the past months. However, Malaysia has a host of problems that have been exposed by the crash of flight 370. Corruption, violent homophobia and major security issues all question if not negate Malaysia’s potential to meet US aspirations.

Currently, the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea are a hotbed of international ownership dispute. They are home to a nearly unfathomable amount of natural resources; estimates regarding oil reserves fluctuate between 28 billion barrels – a little more than US reserves – and 213 billion barrels – nearly ten times US reserves. The United States Energy Information Administration also estimates that the Spratly Islands are home to 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves – equivalent to that of Qatar. Those are astounding figures that would not only ensure the resource stability of the controlling nation but would also thrust it into the forefront of the international resource market. Furthermore, on a smaller scale but no less important one, the Spratly Islands are located in key shipping lanes and supports thriving marine ecosystems necessary for food security in the region. The food resources found in the area feed a majority of the area and contribute to local economies. In the past, the largely undeveloped nations surrounding the islands posed little interest in exploiting the area’s economic and military importance. Now that country after country in the Asia-Pacific region is experiencing economic booms, conflicts over these game-changing assets have proved inevitable.

China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines all claim rightful ownership over the island chain. The fight for island ownership has been fierce, especially by China. The Chinese government has released furious public statements regarding Malaysian presence in the Spratly Islands and even engaged in naval exercises against the Philippines’ occupation of some island chains. Malaysia has responded with their own public statements, while the Philippines have initiated a United Nations tribunal against China in 2014. None of these approaches have seemed to reduce or eventually punish Chinese aggression. Attempts made at diplomatic agreements to peaceably agree on the establishment of clearer maritime borders haven’t lasted or been regarded as final. The South China Sea island dispute issue has been vamping up in the past three decades and seems likely to come to a head soon – as demonstrated by the upcoming UN tribunal against Chinese aggression in the area and the Obama Administration’s “Pivot to Asia” foreign policy.

In the fall of 2011, President Obama traveled to Southeast Asia to pursue what his administration called “a pivot to Asia.” The policy initiative was intended to increase American presence in the region, strengthen diplomatic ties with countries and draw international attention to the area. All of those goals included an element of discouraging Chinese influence in the region. The Obama Administration is continuing with the policy program and President Obama will again travel to Southeast Asia to expand upon those three key goals. President Obama will visit Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. This itinerary is more revealing than the 2011 trip because President Obama is visiting two key American allies as well as two island nations highly involved in the Spratly Islands dispute. Sharia law, rampant corruption and a weak security program question if not negate Malaysia’s desired role as the protector of Western interests in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea island disputes are important for United States foreign policy as well as critical for future international relations because of China’s rising power status. If China were to win the Spratly Island disputes, the massive influx of resources, increased land mass and dominance as a regional power would change international dynamics between Western powers and China, further upsetting a balance of power in the region that has worried US analysts in the face of China’s breackneck growth. It is in the United States interest that small countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Phillipines win the Spratly Island disputes. By drawing favorable international attention and solidifying the relevance of Malaysia and the Philippines, President Obama is attempting to strengthen the island nations’ place in international politics, which has historically been lacking.

The Malaysian government has also been working towards increasing international support, but mostly through an economic approach with an extensive public relations campaign to increase foreign investment and tourism Malaysia is the new hotspot for foreign investors. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development ranked Malaysia “the 16th best investment destination” in 2013 – equal to that of Canada and France. Further, Malaysian foreign direct investment increased nearly 15% from 2011 to 2013. The “Truly Asia” campaign was launched this year by the Malaysian government under the tagline 2014 is “Visit Malaysia” year. The program organizers estimated that the new campaign would attract 28 million tourists – with 12% from China alone. The campaign is expected to increase the tourism economy in Malaysia, even though in 2013, 20% of gross domestic product came from the tourism sector. Malaysia has branded itself as the South East Asian country to visit partially for economic reasons but also for reasons of political relevance. Malaysian economic development is on the rise, which when combined with the increased tourism sector paints Malaysia as a quickly developing, western allied nation worthy of international respect. Being defined as a fun, safe, interesting and reliable location for international tourists has helped maintain sturdy economic growth, but has done little to help Malaysia fare well in the eventual Spratly Island disputes against China. If anything, it has allowed it to whitewash many of the management issues that plight its state services in order not to detract from its international image.

The recent crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the resulting media spotlight has revealed Malaysia’s fundamental shortcomings and glaring political issues.

While the plane’s disappearance itself is horrendous – in particular for the many families left in limbo – the Malaysian government’s handling of the situation has drawn considerable international disapproval.

To begin with, two men boarded the plane with stolen passports that had been listed on Interpol databases as stolen. Malaysian airport security did not consult with Interpol resources and has been highly criticized by international security agencies for the security failure. While the relevant agencies have already begun to revise airport security proceedings, international opinion regarded the mistake as one of incompetence. Malaysian police did not search the homes of the pilot and co-pilot for a full week after the plane disappeared, another security failure that could’ve resulted in destroyed evidence and wasted time.

The most appalling Malaysian mistake made during the investigation was the failure by the Malaysian air force to acknowledge that the plane turned around, crossed Malaysia and entered the Malaca Straight. After the plane changed course it flew across three different air force bases and was ignored by all three. This mistake was catastrophic not only because it could’ve changed the course of the search efforts but also prevented the disappearance entirely. Had the plane’s unplanned reappearance on radar been acknowledged, military aircraft could have been sent to investigate and potentially redirect the plane immediately. Fulfillment of basic expectations by the Malaysian air force could have eliminated the plane’s opportunity to fly off course. Had the plane’s unplanned reappearance on radar been acknowledged, the relevant officials would have known to search in the Malaca Straight and the Indian Ocean instead of wasting time and resources on search efforts in the Pacific and South China Sea. The mistake is embarrassing at best, and according to David Learmont the editor of Flight Global, “damning and tragic” at worst.

Malaysia’s difficulties in protecting its own territory are demonstrative of serious issues in the way the nation is handled. To begin with, corruption is rampant. A survey conducted by a Malaysian firm reported that 90% of corporate executive say “bribery and corruption [are] a ‘major problem for businesses in Malaysia.’” while 71% “believe that bribery and corruption is an inevitable cost of doing business.” Malaysia’s status as the 16th best investment destination seems to be directly contradicted by such an incredible amount of corruption.

Malaysia is also home to an extensive anti-homosexual legal code. The general punishment for homosexuality is twenty-years in prison and caning – a physical punishment where the convict is beaten with a stick. Individual provinces have additional sentencing laws to lengthen the prison terms for convicted persons. Nearly all forms of media – television, films, and music – are all censored against any type of support for homosexuality. The illegality of homosexual behavior stems from Islamist tradition and Sharia law and is viewed in the West as a form of Islamic extremism. Malaysia’s recent reputation as a tourism hot spot also seems to directly contradict such stringent and violent homophobia.

The mismanagement of Flight 370’s search operations opens to conversation much more troubling information about Malaysian governance as a whole. Sharia law, rampant corruption and a weak security program question if not negate Malaysia’s desired role as the protector of Western interests in the South China Sea. Chinese dominance in Southeastern Asia may not be the best for United States foreign policy but Malaysian dominance does not appear to be much better. Malaysia still has major political issues that need to be addressed and solved before the United States hands it such an important role in such a hotly contested region. The Obama Administration has no choice but to incorporate these new developments, as well as previously overlooked realities, into their “pivot to Asia” and perhaps recalculate how much responsibility is all too generously given to Malaysia.

About the Author

A member of the Class of 2017, Brenna is concentrating in Public Policy and Economics.