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China demands answers from Malaysia about missing plane

March 15, 2014 at 5:02 PM EDT
While relatives wait for news in a Beijing hotel, China is demanding answers from the Malaysian government about the disappearance and search for Flight 370. Orville Schell, who heads the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society talks with Hari Sreenivasan about how the incident is adding to tensions on the region.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  As you just heard, no country was more immediately affected by the disappearance of Flight 370 than China, and today China demanded answers. For more about how the Chinese are reacting to this continually unfolding story, we are joined now from San Francisco by Orville Schell, he heads the center on U.S. – China relations at the Asia Society.

So Orville, how is this story playing out in China?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well I think since Chinese were so preponderant in terms of passengers in, 154 of them on the plane, China feels they have a very substantial interest in knowing what happened. It’s curious because usually China is not the most transparent of countries but in this case they are being quite insistent and sometimes even accusatory in regard to Malaysia, accusing them of withholding information of not being very open and not passing out substantial enough information about what’s going on so this huge fleet of ships and planes that’s trying to find the crash could do effective work.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  How much of this pressure that the Chinese government is putting on the Malaysian government is coming from the pressure that they’re feeling from all those family members who still don’t have information on their loved ones?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well it’s turned into a huge drama in China. These Chinese families waiting in a hotel in Beijing for a week now waiting for news and it’s played out all over the country because this is, at least so far, an incident which does not actually involve China. I think China’s fear however, Is that if there proves to be some sort of a hijacking and should the hijackers prove to have something to do with their own Islamic independence movement in Xinjiang — and there have been many occasions in the last few months that have erupted in China, very savagely brutal — well this would be kind of a blow for China which to date has been able to keep somewhat aloof from any imputation of wrong doing.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And how does this impact the kind of geopolitical stability in the region? There are multiple disputes over territories in the region and also, how does China want to be perceived in those fights?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well China a few years ago was perceived in a rather friendly and effective manner. They had declared that they were rising peacefully and countries like the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia were, I think, quite soothed by this idea. Of late however, as China has claimed most of the South China Sea and lots of island chains within that great region that are also claimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei, there’s lots of tension. This search for this plane has actually brought, at least momentarily, everybody together in a common endeavor. And this is something that hasn’t always come easily to China which has been very circumspect about violations of other country’s sovereignty, for humanitarian intervention or efforts that have involved sort of collective international community. So this is a good example, I think, of China joining such an effort but I don’t think in the long run it’s going to mitigate the tension in the South China Sea.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Orville Schell joining us from San Francisco. Thanks so much.