When a Chinese government vessel took the world by surprise this month with its announcement that it had detected underwater signals that might have come from the missing Malaysia Airlines plane, China suddenly looked like the hero of the multinational search effort.
Within days, however, the Chinese claims were discounted, and attention shifted to another set of signals recorded by American personnel aboard an Australian ship hundreds of miles away.
Still, the Chinese claims have exasperated some officials from the United States and other participating countries. The announcement was only one in a series of moves by China that might have been intended to project competence, according to officials and analysts, but only served to distract and delay the search effort.
“Everybody wants to find the plane,” said a senior Defence Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to appear overly critical of the Chinese. But, he continued, “false leads slow down the investigation.”
Most of the passengers on board Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 were Chinese citizens, so the matter became a top priority for China. Since the plane’s disappearance on March 8, Beijing has deployed reconnaissance aircraft, more than a dozen vessels and, it said, 21 satellites in the search. Many of the ships in the current search zone, in the southern Indian Ocean, are Chinese.
The mission has clearly been a prime opportunity for the Chinese government to demonstrate its determination and technological abilities to its domestic audience, and to improve on its response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year, which was widely criticised as late and tepid.
“This is a chance for China to regain some of its lost prestige and show the world what it’s capable of,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at the Tokyo campus of Temple University. “There’s a lot of prestige on the line here.”
But the search has also brought China into sudden and close contact with regional competitors who have been uneasy with China’s rapid military expansion and its increasing willingness to project force across a wider area of the globe. With regional tensions already high before the plane disappeared, China’s rush to be first upset others involved in the search — not least because the Chinese turned out to be wrong.
In the first week of the search, China released satellite photographs purportedly showing wreckage in the South China Sea. The objects, however, turned out to be unrelated debris. The claim eventually elicited a rebuke from Malaysian officials that China had wasted the time of other nations looking for the missing Boeing 777-200.
On April 5, Chinese state-run news media reported that Haixun 01, a Chinese government search vessel apparently operating outside the zone designated that day by the search coordinators, had twice detected underwater signals that might have come from the missing plane’s flight recorders.
Photographs published by the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, showed crewmen using a hand-held hydrophone intended for use in shallow water, casting doubt on the value of the claims.
Still, search officials sent H.M.S. Echo, a British vessel equipped with highly sophisticated listening technology, to verify Haixun 01’s report. Several days later, Echo was quietly pulled from the area of the Chinese ship and sent to assist Ocean Shield, an Australian vessel also equipped with high-tech listening equipment that had detected four signals that search coordinators believed came from the plane’s flight recorders.
The delay in deploying Echo to join Ocean Shield may have cost searchers the opportunity to record more signals and narrow the underwater search area, officials say.
Willy Lam, a specialist in Chinese strategic policies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the lack of more sophisticated Chinese equipment was striking.
“According to the state propaganda, they are supposed to have sent the best they could muster, because it’s national prestige at stake, and they face a lot of pressure from the victims’ families,” Mr. Lam said. “In spite of all the hoopla over China building an advanced military, they seem to have not much to show in this operation.”
In an interview, a high-level official in the Malaysian government stiffened when Chinese involvement in the search arose. “Really helpful, aren’t they?” he said sarcastically.
Several analysts said that Beijing was under intense pressure to show its domestic audience that it was not only in the forefront of the search effort but also the most productive.
“The question is, Who delivered first?” said Carl Thayer, professor of politics at University of New South Wales in Australia.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond Monday to messages seeking comment on the search.
The international response to China’s missteps might not have been so negative had China been less critical of Malaysia’s handling of the investigation, analysts said. For weeks, the Chinese authorities and the state-run Chinese news media hectored the Malaysian government and demanded more transparency and information sharing.
Despite China’s clumsy execution, few observers question the government’s commitment to finding the plane.
“The scope, scale and expense of Chinese operations exceeds anything that China has undertaken to date,” said Jonathan D. Pollack, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “The Chinese are at least as intent on achieving definitive results as anyone else.”
“It’s possible that this has led some Chinese personnel to reach premature judgements based on limited or inconclusive observations,” Mr. Pollack said. “But this hardly seems unique to China.”
- China reports unconfirmed lead in plane search in Chinese media first; fails to notify Australian search coordinators (chinadailymail.com)
- China confused about its status in plane investigation; it has no official role (chinadailymail.com)
- China’s criticism of Malaysia: unjust, unfair and below the belt (chinadailymail.com)
- China tries to become “Asia’s policeman” in missing plane saga; sends team uninvited to Malaysia to “advise” on search and rescue mission (chinadailymail.com)
- China’s media abandons search for Japanese link to missing plane (chinadailymail.com)
- In jet search, China is viewed as more hurt than help (ndtv.com)
- Chinese claims in Malaysia plane hunt reportedly seen as slowing down search (foxnews.com)
- China’s Efforts in Hunt for Plane Are Seen as Hurting More Than Helping (rss.nytimes.com)
- China’s Efforts in Hunt for Plane Are Seen as Hurting More Than Helping (nytimes.com)
- China Slams NYT Report Questioning Beijing’s Role in Malaysia Jet Search (voanews.com)