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Will Chinese warships and satellites help find the missing Malaysian plane?

Friday, 14 March 2014 - 9:36am IST | Agency: Reuters

From high-resolution satellites to advanced warships, China's military build-up is on
full display in the hunt for a missing Malaysian jetliner -
putting Asia on notice as to what Beijing might do in the future
to further assert its regional presence.

Now in its sixth day, the search for the Malaysia Airlines
Boeing 777 and its 239 passengers and crew has exposed
tensions between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur, with Chinese
officials from Premier Li Keqiang on down criticising Malaysia's
handling of the crisis. China has sent a team of envoys and
investigators to Malaysia to deepen its involvement.

While Beijing's concerns reflect, in part, public anxiety
over the fate of more than 150 Chinese on board Flight MH370,
the search comes at a time when China has been flexing its
muscles in the disputed South and East China Seas.

One aerospace and defence industry source with years of
experience in the region said the Chinese response would stick
in the minds of its neighbours.

"This is a demonstration of force in a peaceful context,"
said the source, who declined to be identified because he was
not authorised to speak to the media.

China has deployed four warships, four coastguard vessels,
eight aircraft and trained 10 satellites on a wide search area
far from mainland China. Chinese media have described the ship
deployment as the largest Chinese rescue fleet ever assembled.

The missing plane's last reported contact with civilian
radar was near the mouth of the Gulf of Thailand, which opens
into the South China Sea. The aircraft was bound for Beijing
after taking off from Kuala Lumpur.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Monday
acknowledged Malaysia had the "main responsibility" for both the
search and the follow-up investigation. He added, however, that
Beijing had a responsibility not only to participate but to
"demand and urge" Malaysia to step up its efforts.

ONCE WARM TIES?

Ironically, China's ties with Malaysia had been among its
warmest in the region despite a dispute over territory in the
South China Sea.

However, Chinese warships staged a show of sovereignty just
two months ago at the James Shoal, a submerged reef about 80 km
(50 miles) off Malaysia's Borneo island state of Sarawak - and
some 1,800 km (1,125 miles) from mainland China.

Beijing regards those waters as its southernmost territory,
the bottom of a looping so-called nine-dash line on maps that
comprise 90 percent of the South China Sea. The Philippines,
Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan are also in dispute with Beijing over
parts of the ocean.

The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployment at the
shoal was led by one of its three state-of-the-art amphibious
assault ships. Two of those 20,000-tonne vessels - the
Kunlunshan and the Jingangshan - have joined the search for the
missing plane.

"The Chinese are drawing the conclusion that these guys are
not ready for prime time," said Ernie Bower, a Southeast Asia
specialist at Washington's Center for Strategic and
International Studies, referring to Malaysia.

The fruitless search has shone the spotlight on a series of
fumbling news conferences by Malaysian officials and a long
delay in divulging details of the military's tracking of what
could have been the plane hundreds of miles off course.

Malaysian government officials say they are coping as best
they can with a highly complex crisis.

Regional naval officials and analysts said one of the big
questions now was what the protracted search - and China's
growing concerns over Malaysia's response - would mean for
Beijing's approach to the region in future.

While many foreign experts see Beijing's deployment as
robust, Chinese state television and other media reports have
referred to a lack of Chinese capabilities to conduct extended
search and rescue operations far from the mainland coast.

More facilities would be needed for dealing with
humanitarian disasters, one Chinese expert said, even though
China had expanded listening posts, ports and runways at its
facilities in the disputed Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes of
the South China Sea.

"This will not be the last time. China has a responsibility
and calling to join in," said Ruan Zongze, a former Chinese
diplomat with the China Institute of International Studies, a
think tank affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.

The Chinese effort is already sparking concern among the
public in Vietnam, where battles over sovereignty against China
go back decades.

Social media has been active with postings, comments and
deep suspicion about the presence of Chinese planes and warships
near the Vietnamese coast.

Deputy Transport Minister Pham Quy Tieu, head of Vietnam's
search and rescue effort, told Reuters that China had asked
permission for its ships and planes to enter Vietnamese
territory and that Hanoi remained in "total control".

"China only flies and searches at high altitude, its boats
never go deep inside our waters. So we are not concerned about
breaches of our sovereignty," Tieu said.

"NEW HISTORIC MISSIONS"

Ian Storey, an expert on ties between China and Southeast
Asia, said Beijing's deployment reflected its regional military
build-up and the PLA's so-called "new historic missions", which
included protecting Chinese nationals abroad.

The crisis would bolster the case of those in China who
believe that as the country's global interests expand, its
defence budget should grow to protect those interests, added
Storey, from the Institute of South East Asian Studies in
Singapore.

China this month announced a 12.2 percent rise in military
spending to 808.23 billion yuan ($131.57 billion) for 2014, but
gave no breakdown of how the money would be spent.

Its military spending, second only to the United States, has
allowed China to create a modern force that is projecting power
not only across the East and South China Seas, but further into
the western Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Bower said the confused search highlighted weak military
cooperation in Asia and the need for better coordination between
Washington and its Asian allies and partners.

A long-running effort by the Association of South East Asian
Nations (ASEAN) to tie China to a binding agreement on measures
to lower tensions in the South China Sea includes search and
rescue cooperation.

Such cooperation is part of the discussions, and ASEAN
envoys said this could be accelerated outside the broader and
more sensitive talks.

"Since we don't have that collaborative effort well
established yet, I think the Chinese are, whether intentionally
or unintentionally, sending a message to their citizens that
Malaysia is a small country that's not able to manage well,"
said Bower.




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