BEIJING — China has not held back in forcing the pace of the search for the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370. It has deployed 21 satellites and a flotilla of naval ships. It has despatched investigators to Malaysia, run background checks on the Chinese passengers and scoured radar images of its vast western regions. Every day it has cajoled, chided and criticised Malaysian officials.
And still it has come up empty-handed. Two weeks after the plane vanished on an overnight flight to Beijing, no trace of the Boeing 777 jet or the 239 people on board, two-thirds of whom are Chinese, has been found.
The painful process of working with Malaysia in searching for the plane and investigating what went wrong in the early hours of March 8 has revealed the limits of China’s power, influence and technological and military might in the region, despite its rapid rise as a rival to the United States and American strategic dominance of the Western Pacific.
Within China, anguished relatives and friends of the passengers and their many sympathisers are pressing hard for answers, but the government finds itself helpless as Malaysia takes the lead in the search and investigation efforts, which is consistent with international norms on air disasters.
Malaysia has been keeping other nations, including China, at a distance, to the frustration of officials here, according to political observers. That tension is reflected in the frequent condemnations of Malaysia that have appeared in the Chinese state news media.
“If you don’t push them, they won’t move,” Professor Zhu Zhenming, a scholar of South-east Asia at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, said about the Malaysian authorities. “It’s mostly to do with their administrative management capabilities, but also their culture.”
That sense of frustration has come through even in official Chinese remarks that were intended to be diplomatic. On Tuesday, Mr Huang Huikang, the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, that “the Malaysian government has insufficient capabilities, technologies and experience in responding to the MH370 incident, but they did their best”.
In some ways, the complaints reinforce a belief that many Chinese have long held: That their political culture is superior to those of South-east Asian nations.
“The image of the Malaysian government has dropped in the eyes of the Chinese government and the Chinese people,” said Dr Bo Zhiyue, a scholar of Chinese politics at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore. He said the episode had reinforced the view among Chinese that their system “is not inferior to other systems, and is in some ways superior to other systems in its efficiency”.
Like China, Malaysia has been governed by the same political party for decades, but there are important differences. Malaysia has robust opposition parties, although its military has not played a major role in domestic politics. That means that Malaysian commanders have less frequent contact with civilian leaders than their counterparts in some other Asian nations, including China, where Mr Xi, Chief of the Communist Party, directs the military.
Some political analysts have said that if the Malaysian military had closer ties to civilian officials, there might have been earlier agreement on how to interpret and share military radar data that tracked an aircraft, now believed to be Flight MH370, flying west-ward to the Indian Ocean rather than going down near its original course across the Gulf of Thailand. The late announcement of the radar data embarrassed Malaysia and angered many nations.
Chinese officials are under intense pressure to solve the mystery of Flight MH370 in part because of the timing of its disappearance, only one week after attackers went on a knifing rampage in a train station in south-west China, killing 29 people. Chinese officials said the rampage was a terrorist act and the attackers appeared to have come from Xinjiang, the western province where violence has been mounting between ethnic Uighurs and the ruling ethnic Han.
Many people initially thought that MH370’s disappearance was another act of terrorism, possibly committed by Uighurs, though US officials have said they believe terrorists are probably not involved. China’s own investigation of its citizens on the plane found that none had any ties to militancy, including an ethnic Uighur who was on board.
Nevertheless, both the train-station massacre and the flight’s disappearance are national traumas arising from events beyond the control of the Chinese authorities, said Dr Bo.
“It’s a little sensitive and it seems a little embarrassing,” he said.
“They need to make an extra effort to make it look like they’re taking it seriously and commit resources to find an answer to the problem.”
The New York Times
Comment on PPRuNe:
This is costing the Chinese massively in Satellite resources.[This incident has shown a) the military preparedness of Malaysia's neighbours and their ability to respond to possible incursion into their territory by air. And it has been informative. b) the radar/detection capabilities and ability to react in a timely fashion. And now c) China's satellite ability. New Conspiracy Theory?]
Photo reconnaissance satellites typically follow a polar orbit. This goes over both poles, whilst the earth rotates underneath, so they spend equal amounts of time in the northern and southern hemispheres.
The timing of the orbits puts them over their targets early in the morning or late in the afternoon, in sun synchronous orbits, to get 3D perspective.
To change orbit to look at a different target uses up manoeuvre fuel. They obviously only have a finite amount of this so using it is incredibly expensive in terms of the life of the satellite. They also use fuel to counter the effects of orbital decay.
During the Falklands war the USA changed the orbit of a KH-11 (which cost well over a billion dollars, more than a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier) to provide the UK with intelligence. Casber Weinberger earned his knighthood.
When the Chinese moved as many as "10" satellites to the Gulf of Thailand/South China Sea it must have cost them an utter fortune in using up the life of these assets.
When they changed the orbits again to cover the southern Indian Ocean it cost them yet another utter fortune.
They will now have a very big shortfall in their reconnaissance capabilities for a few years as they have to manufacture new resources.