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Politics & Law

Australia’s diplomatic dilemma as China intervenes in Indian Ocean plane search

Australian Search Area

Australian Search Area

The Australian government faces a potentially delicate diplomatic balancing act as China seeks a greater role in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.

Under pressure from the families of the 153 Chinese citizens onboard, China has sent three navy vessels to join the Australia-led search in the so-called southern corridor, according to state media reports. Beijing also said it was sending helicopter-equipped ships, including two rescue ships and an icebreaker called the Xue Long which was already in Perth preparing for an Antarctic trip.

Australia has been leaning on traditional defence allies such as the U.S. as it scours the southern Indian Ocean for the missing plane. Integrating the Chinese ships, and aircraft—as Australia search authorities said Wednesday they were considering after being approached by Beijing—injects national-security concerns into what is already a difficult search operation, security analysts said.

Canberra and Beijing have talked up their ability to cooperate on the search. Australia is supportive of China’s efforts, said Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman. “China maintains close coordination and communication with Australia in the search operation,” he said, adding that “the Australians have cooperated with and been supportive of our actions.”

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Friday he sympathises with Chinese leaders over the fate of the missing aircraft—which disappeared on an overnight flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8—describing the incident as an “extraordinary riddle.” Mr. Abbott said he called Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday night after Australian authorities obtained satellite pictures of what may be debris linked to the missing plane.

But Michael McKinley, a security and international-relations expert at the Australian National University, suggested the Chinese involvement was likely to raise serious concerns for Australia about the potential for disrupting relations with the U.S.

The U.S. has been Australia’s key strategic ally in the Pacific region since World War II, when thousands of American servicemen were based in the country. That relationship deepened in 2011 when Canberra agreed to let the U.S. base 2,500 Marines near the northern city of Darwin, a move that spurred Chinese officials to describe Australia’s links with the U.S. as a legacy of the Cold War and the U.S.-led effort against communist states.

Australia is also a member of the “Five Eyes” alliance with the U.S., U.K., Canada and New Zealand that exchange intelligence, usually on matters of crime and counterterrorism.

“The Australians and Americans and Kiwis routinely operate together during exercises. This is well-oiled machinery used to flying in a challenging area,” said John Blaxland, another security and intelligence expert at the Australian National University. “To throw in the involvement of a country that doesn’t speak the same language, use the same radio frequency, have the same operating practices, it’s a complication [Australia] probably wish they did not have at this moment.”

Mr. Abbott’s office didn’t return requests to comment on any security or political concern around the Chinese involvement.

A spokeswoman for Australian Maritime Safety Authority—which is leading the Australian search effort—declined to comment Friday on whether Chinese aircraft would take part in future aerial searches. John Young, a maritime authority official, said in a separate video briefing that Australia could use more aircraft capable of flying at low altitudes to assist in finding two objects spotted on satellite images about 1,550 miles from the Western Australia capital Perth.

Mr. Hong, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, highlighted a pledge by Mr. Abbott that his government would “keep in close communication with China and inform China of the latest developments.” Mr. Hong didn’t respond when asked whether Chinese search teams had been cleared to land or dock in Australia.

China lacks long-range surveillance and patrol aircraft. It has so far committed about 10 planes to various stages of the search effort, most recently two IL-76 transport planes and a Yun-8 cargo, bulkier planes ill-suited for surveillance and sea rescue, and which for the moment are operating from Malaysia.

Such planes could potentially be useful in providing visual confirmation and GPS coordinates, said one analyst. “As long as they are coordinating with other nations they provide more eyes on the sea,” the analyst said.

China’s seafaring capabilities are stronger. Beijing on Friday said three navy warships would steam toward the area, and specialise vessels were also being dispatched. One helicopter-equipped rescue vessel, the Haixun 01, has long-range capabilities, able to sail 10,000 nautical miles without refuelling and carry an underwater robot, black-box search instruments, side-scan sonar and a magnetometer.

It was unclear how soon any of the Chinese vessels will arrive.

Australia has recently been attempting to repair ties with Beijing, which were frayed last year shortly after Mr. Abbott’s conservative administration took office, when the country’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, criticized China’s self-declared air defence zone over the East China Sea. In January, Ms. Bishop again ruffled China when she played down Beijing’s economic significance to Canberra in a speech in Washington, describing the U.S. as Australia’s “most important economic partner.” China is Australia’s No. 1 trading partner and China’s voracious appetite for resources helped shield Australia from a recession during the global financial crisis.

Mr. Abbott plans to visit China next month in his first big swing through North Asia since taking office, hoping to revive long-stalled free-trade talks. The countries are at odds over China’s offer of improved access for Australian agricultural products, while Beijing wants more-generous foreign-investment treatment, lower manufacturing tariff walls and smoother visa arrangements for Chinese in Australia.

China’s rising global economic and political reach has led to increasing Chinese participation in international military type operations. In June, military doctors from Australia, China and the U.S. held joint drills in Brunei with their counterparts from Southeast Asia during an exercise known as Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response

In December, after Typhoon Haiyan devastated part of the Philippines, Liu Jieyi, China’s representative to the United Nations, said Beijing is committed to sharing its experience during emergencies elsewhere. He said during such times, countries should coordinate in ways that “avoid the politicisation of humanitarian issues and maintain the demilitarisation of humanitarian assistance.”

Source: Wall Street Journal – Indian Ocean Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 Raises Diplomatic Concerns

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