Malaysia appears to be discovering the limits of China's panda diplomacy as the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 rumbles on.
Beijing has made a point of lending out pairs of pandas to various countries around the world to help develop both diplomatic ties and fuzzier, if not furrier, bonds of friendship. The practice dates back to the 7 century, when Empress Wu Zetian delivered a pair of pandas to the emperor of Japan. Today, Chinese-born pandas reside in locales as far-flung as San Diego, Edinburgh and Chiang Mai.
Malaysia hoped to receive a pair of pandas this month. The bears, Feng Yi and Fu Wa, are scheduled to be on loan to Malaysia for 10 years and preparations were already being made to house them at a special $7.7 million complex at the national zoo, some 50 kilometers from the capital Kuala Lumpur.
But strained relations over the search for Flight 370, which disappeared on March 8 on a seemingly routine flight to Beijing, seem to have put paid to the plan, at least for now. G. Palanivel, Malaysia's natural resources and environment minister, said the arrival of the pandas had been postponed as a mark of respect for the feelings of family members of passengers on the missing plane as the search for it continues in the southern Indian Ocean.
More than 150 of the 239 people on board Flight 370 are Chinese nationals, and Beijing at times has angrily complained about Malaysia's handling of the search and recovery effort. In one harrowing incident, relatives of Chinese passengers were dragged howling from a Malaysian government press conference as they sought out answers as to what happened to the plane.
Malaysian officials have said some delays were inevitable because they wanted to verify and corroborate information before releasing it and they're doing all they care to care for the families of the passengers.
'During this difficult time, it seems inappropriate to arrange for the sending off and arrival of the pandas in Malaysia,' the Associated Press reported Mr. Palanivel as saying Friday. He did say, however, that the bears are expected to arrive in Malaysia before May 31, when the two countries are scheduled to celebrate their 40 anniversary of diplomatic ties.
Officials at China's embassy in Kuala Lumpur couldn't immediately be reached for comment.