Countries wary of China’s participation in search for MH370, says report

The search for missing Malaysia Airlines jet MH370 has made China a "team player" but other nations involved in the search efforts are suspicious of the Asian powerhouse using the tragedy to spy on them.

The Wall Street Journal today reported that amid the goodwill of the multinational search mission, there has been a pushback against China's participation following suspicion regarding Beijing's motives.

A senior Indian defence official told WSJ that a Chinese request for ships to search Indian territory near the Andaman island chain was declined last week over concerns that China was using the search mission as a pretext for gathering of intelligence about key defence installations.

"They can play on emotions and try and get into the area. We have all modern capabilities to look for the plane ourselves if it had crashed in Indian waters," the official said.

Brahma Chellany of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi said China also was using the hunt for the missing airliner "for military advantage in the latest example of how [it] is becoming assertive."

Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy international-security programme director Rory Medcalf said the unprecedented Chinese mission serves as a "reminder that China is increasingly willing to deploy forces to distant and unfamiliar places to help its citizens, or at least to be seen to help them."

China has sent several naval ships as well as aircraft to the search zone at the southern Indian Ocean, and has tasked 21 satellites to scour the search corridor for signs of the missing plane.

"Nothing of this size has ever been conducted by China, either by the navy or the coast guard.

"It's fairly impressive how quickly they have mobilised. We're used to the Chinese being relatively risk averse," said Gary Li, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime.

Analysts also told WSJ that China has highlighted its own limitations in its "show of military power" by dispatching two IL-76 long range aircraft, which are essentially cargo planes with no specialist capability, for a maritime search.

Li said that China had only sent one supply ship to support the search mission, meaning that the Chinese ships may struggle to operate so far from home soon.

Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Andrew Davies also told WSJ that China's highly visible contributions to the search effort derive from the opportunity "to win prestige" in an operation with a global and domestic audience.

However, China seemed to be lacking a dedicated, long-range maritime patrol aircraft with a high-performance radar to help the search, he said.

"China has spent many years building up area-denial capabilities.

"By comparison, its long-range capabilities are relatively nascent," Davies said, referring in particular to precision missiles designed to prevent foreign ships and aircraft from entering Chinese waters in the event of a conflict.

WSJ said it faxed to the Chinese Foreign Ministry a request for comment on the allegations but did not receive a response.

Before MH370, the biggest operations undertaken regularly by the Chinese navy were joint anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, which it had conducted for several years. But these operations usually involved two warships and one supply vessel.

The Chinese navy in January also sent three ships through the South China Sea and south of Indonesia into the Indian Ocean, in a move that prompted hand-wringing among China's neighbours, or at least those worried about the implications of China's rise to superpower status.

The search for MH370, which carried 153 Chinese nationals among 239 passengers and crew, had dwarfed those earlier operations.

WSJ said the actual capabilities fielded by Beijing may be less important than the message it sent to the world and its own people by its robust response to the aircraft's disappearance, a mobilisation that stands in contrast to its meager response, at least initially, after Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines last year.

However, China's participation in this multinational mission is not without its complications as the search shifts entirely to the southern Indian Ocean, where MH370 is assumed to have crashed.

The Chinese had already seen a minor hiccup when its air force IL-76 long-range transport planes and their crew landed at the wrong place after arriving in Australia last Saturday.

They landed at the Perth Airport, instead of Pearce Air Force Base, or 42 kilometres, to the north.

The manner of their arrival hinted at how seldom China's airmen venture so far south to work alongside others from allied nations – Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the United States – which are more accustomed to pooling their resources.

The Chinese teams joined the search in the southern Indian Ocean on Monday and within hours of taking off, one Chinese crew reported seeing objects floating in the search area, though they were unable to confirm whether these were related to the lost jet.

WSJ in the article reported that the concern among some Asian-Pacific nations now is that these occasional expeditions south by China will become less rare and even much more assured, as it builds up its blue-water capabilities and its military swagger.

But for now, the importance of finding traces of MH370 has trumped the reservations of governments that are normally happier to see China's armed forces operating within their own sphere of influence. – March 26, 2014.