China Presses Claim on MH370 Search

The hunt for MH370 looks like becoming another wedge to be used by China to claim hegemony in Southeast Asia. A signed commentary on March 17 by the editor of the South China Morning Post, Wang Xiangwei makes it abundantly clear that Beijing is not just frustrated by Malaysia’s failure to find the plane but insists on its right to take a lead.

The article is headed: “Is Malaysia fit to lead search for flight 370?” and concludes with the following demand: “It is time for Beijing to step up and lead the operation using its influence to press the relevant nations to work more closely to solve the mystery”.

This is arguably not just the work of a columnist writing nonsense off the top of his head. Wang not only has very good connections in Beijing. He began his career on the state-owned China Daily and was a member of the China People's Political Consultative Committee of Jilin Province.

His commentary coincides with a bristling editorial in the state-owned news agency Xinhua, which said the delay in providing information on what appears to be the true course of the airplane instead of a possible location somewhere in the South China Sea “a huge waste of valuable time and resources.”

It went on to say that “due to the absence — or at least lack — of timely authoritative information, massive efforts have been squandered, and numerous rumors have been spawned, repeatedly wracking the nerves of the awaiting families. Given today’s technology, the delay smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information in a full and timely manner. That would be intolerable.”

There are two dangerous implications in Wang’s column and the Xinhua editorial. The first is that because the majority of passengers were Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese from Malaysia, this gives the Beijing government a special claim to lead the search. This sounds very much like old-fashioned race-based claims to be the protector of Chinese everywhere.

The Chinese did this once before, on the Mekong River in October of 2011, when eight gunmen stormed two Chinese cargo ships in an attempt to hijack about 900,000 amphetamine pills worth more than US$3 million, murdering the Chinese crew of the two vessels. The Chinese reaction was immediate. First they suspended all shipping on the Mekong, then sent more than 200 border police to join patrols looking for the culprits – whom the patrols eventually caught, They were later executed. It was the first such joint deployment into Southeast Asia, and was regarded as a troubling expansion of China's growing role in regional security.

This is also strikingly similar to Russia’s current claims to the right to defend the interests of ethnic Russians not merely in areas where they are a majority – Crimea and eastern Ukraine – but in other countries which were once part of the Soviet Russian empire and still have significant Russian minorities remaining from colonization under both the tsars and the commissars.

The second is Wang’s words “press the relevant nations to work more closely.” Which, one wonders, are the relevant nations supposed to share their data not with Malaysia but with China? Is this a demand on Vietnam? On India? On Thailand? How much data has China itself provided to Malaysia?

China’s one known contribution to date has been a report that one of its satellites found wreckage in the South China Sea. This turned out to be embarrassing and false and made life even more difficult for an already confused Malaysia. The satellite sighting, of “three suspected floating objects” in the South China Sea required a helicopter search that turned out to be ordinary flotsam.

Beyond that, China’s contribution to the search has been minimal compared with that of the US if only for the reason that it has little naval or air capability to the west and south of Malaysia. As far the possibility that the plane headed northwest, across Thailand, Myanmar and perhaps even China itself toward Kazakhstan, one would assume that China has its own radar data. Is it sharing that with anyone?

China may be able to lean on Thailand and Myanmar, who probably have scant data anyway, but does Beijing really believe that India, for instance, would open up its military surveillance capability by telling China everything it knows?

If any country other than Malaysia should coordinate the search it should be the US simply because it has the most and most sophisticated air, naval and satellite resources. But would India and China be happy with that?

The very fact that Beijing through its mouthpiece Wang Xiangwei feels entitled to demand leadership displays an attitude of mind which should make Southeast Asia shiver. That is an attitude which will not go away whether or not the plane is ever found and the mystery of its disappearance resolved.

Meanwhile, in the western press…

The dangerous assumptions of the Chinese form a useful contrast to the vacuity and irresponsibility of much western media coverage. The once-respected British newspaper The Guardian retailed a story first put out by a British tabloid that the pilot was a “political extremist” follower of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

The story was unsourced, suggesting it was one of innumerable plot theories peddled on Twitter but nonetheless widely picked up, for example by television stations in Hong Kong. Perhaps this one was put out by UMNO loyalists eager to further tarnish opposition leader Anwar. But its dissemination by the Guardian showed the depths to which British journalism has sunk.

The Guardian also carried a report on MH 370 datelined “Songkhla,” omitting to tell its readers that this is a moderate size town in southern Thailand far from sources of MH 370 news – which probably explains why the story read like a brief rehash of wire services.

Numerous foreign media took the Malaysian military to task for not noticing the westward turn of MH 370 till days afterwards. But do small countries like Malaysia with constant heavy commercial traffic really need to spend huge resources constantly monitoring every aircraft in their airspace?

Malaysia is not threatened militarily by anyone – other than by China with its claims over Malaysian islands in the South China Sea – so one would hardly expect it to use radar to constantly closely monitor all air traffic, especially late at night when many flights leave KL for northeast Asia and Europe.

There could quickly be international incidents if Malaysia – or others – scrambled interceptor fighters every time an insufficiently identified plane showed up on the radar. Malaysia certainly badly mishandled the information that it eventually received from its military after data had been reviewed, but the fact is that Southeast Asia has long been at peace and no country is on alert for enemy aircraft.