China-Malaysia ties are facing a new challenge this week, as a female Chinese tourist was one of two kidnapped by armed gunmen from a resort in Semporna, Malaysia. A Filipino resort worker was also abducted. According to media reports, six or seven gunmen abducted the two women from Singamata Reef Resort. Malaysian police suspect that the abductors may have had “inside help” to enter the resort.
Further complicating the situation, the perpetrators are believed to have been from the southern Philippines. The gunmen, along with their hostages, were believed to be hiding in the Philippines’ southern Tawi-Tawi province. Xinhua reports that the Philippine Navy has sent vessels to the area to help search for the missing women. Malaysia has also sent its own security forces, but so far the search on both sides of the Malaysia-Philippines border has turned up no results.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei told the press on Thursday that the government is paying close attention to the situation. China has “asked local police to go all-out for rescue while ensuring the safety of the Chinese citizen and take effective measures to protect Chinese tourists there,” Hong said.
Both Chinese and Malaysian news reports likened Wednesday’s kidnappings to an event that took place on November 15, 2013. On that day, at another resort in the same region, a Taiwanese businessman was killed and his wife abducted by gunmen. The gunmen demanded a ransom in exchange for their hostage. 36 days after her abduction, the wife was finally rescued by Philippine security forces.
In that case, the terrorist group Abu Sayaff was believed to have been behind the kidnapping, leading some to speculate the same group is behind Wednesday’s event. Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Hamza Taib declined to attribute the kidnapping to a particular group, but he told Malaysia’s The Star, “It looks like kidnap-for-ransom groups (KFR) are behind this. The group that came in abducts the victims and then sells them to other groups.”
The Star detailed the history of kidnappings in the Sahab state over the past decades, with incidents ranging from the 1979 hijacking of a ferry to abductions of Malaysian workers, as well as kidnappings targeting tourist groups. The state is located close to the southern region of the Philippines, and many of the attacks were allegedly carried out by Abu Sayyaf or other militant groups.
The kidnapping of a Chinese tourist could provide a further hit to Malaysia’s reputation as a tourist hot-spot. Chinese tourism to Malaysia had already taken a huge hit after the as-yet unresolved disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 on March 8. Chinese officials and average citizens alike have criticized Kuala Lumpur’s handling of the search and its treatment of the passengers’ families, many of whom are Chinese. Several Chinese ticketing websites have stopped offering flights from Malaysia Airlines, and some travel agencies have even scrubbed Malaysia from their travel packages.
Despite this, Malaysian police say that of the 61 tourists at the Singamata Reef Resort at the time of the kidnapping, 59 were from China. The kidnapping incident, however, might change the minds of those Chinese tourists who were not dissuaded from a Malaysian vacation by the case of Flight 370. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, currently in Australia, told the press that he hoped China-Malaysia ties can remain strong despite this new test. “There may be those who are attempting to drive a wedge between us and China. They may be trying to take advantage of the situation,” he warned, saying China and Malaysia must avoid letting their relationship be damaged.
The abduction could also have implications for China-Philippines relations, which are already strained by on-going territorial disputes and the Philippines’ decision to seek international arbitration. In 2010, a hostage crisis involving a bus full of Hong Kong tourists ended with eight of the hostages dead. The entire incident was broadcast on television, heightening the impact. Subsequent investigations blamed Philippine officials for mishandling the situation. The incident continues to mar relations between Hong Kong and the Philippines, with Hong Kong recently revoking visa-free travel privileges for Philippine officials as a punitive move. Hong Kong demands a formal apology for the incident. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has refused to give one, saying the country should not have to apologize for the crime of one individual.
Should Wednesday’s abduction end in tragedy, we might see a similar rift in ties between Beijing and Manila—which can ill afford another cause for tensions.