A woman writes on a banner carrying messages for the passengers of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, outside Kuala Lumpur on March 18, 2014. (AFP Photo)
China has postponed plans to send a pair of pandas to Malaysia next week, a minister said Friday, as bilateral relations remain uneasy over the disappearance of flight MH370.
The two countries agreed in 2012 that China would send the giant pandas for a 10-year stay in Malaysia, in Beijing's latest use of "panda diplomacy" to cement ties with other countries. But Malaysia's environment minister G. Palanivel told AFP: "They (China) are waiting for the results of MH370. "They will delay the arrival," he said in a text message. "They might send in late May."
In a separate public statement, Palanivel said China and Malaysia have agreed that the giant pandas should arrive "at a more significant date" in May. May 31 marks the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Palanivel did not elaborate on the reasons for the delay, but the circumstances of the animals' planned arrival appeared likely to cause embarrassment for China's government -- they were due arrive on April 16 on a Malaysia Airlines flight. The airline and Malaysia's government have come under withering public criticism in China, whose 153 nationals made up the bulk of the 239 aboard the missing jet.
Flight MH370 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8. The plane is now believed to have crashed in the Indian Ocean, where efforts are under way to locate its flight data recorders on the seafloor. Chinese relatives of the missing passengers have accused the Malaysian flag carrier and authorities of bungling the response to the plane's disappearance and withholding information, which Malaysia's government denies. Chinese authorities allowed relatives to stage a rare public protest at Malaysia's embassy last month to vent their anger, suggesting official support for the criticism.
Malaysian news reports on Friday quoted government officials saying at least 30,000 Chinese tourists had cancelled holidays in Malaysia in the wake of the missing plane drama. China is Malaysia's largest trading partner and Kuala Lumpur has been courting closer ties with Beijing. It had declared 2014 as "China-Malaysia Friendship Year". Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had requested the pandas from former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who left office last year.
The pandas -- Feng Yi ("Phoenix") and Fu Wa ("Lucky") -- have already caused controversy in Malaysia over plans to house them in special $7.7 million facility in the national zoo in Kuala Lumpur. Environmentalists have said the money would have been better spent on conservation efforts for threatened Malaysian wildlife. Malaysia's image in China took a further blow last week, when a Chinese tourist was kidnapped in an eastern state by gunmen believed to be Islamic militants from the southern Philippines. Malaysia has said ransom negotiations are under way.