Missing MH370: A test for China's leaders - but an opportunity too

BEIJING - The lives of its citizens are at stake, but that may not be the only reason why the Chinese government has spared no effort to search for the missing Flight MH370.

The all-out push, say observers, also reflects China's desire to bolster its standing domestically and internationally.

Chinese analysts and media believe that China's search operation is the largest ever, with 10 naval ships, several planes and 21 navigation satellites deployed. Officials say more could be deployed as China adjusts its search efforts.

Beijing has also instructed Chinese commercial ships passing through the Strait of Malacca and southern Indian Ocean to look out for the Malaysia Airlines jetliner, which was carrying 239 people, 153 of them Chinese nationals, when it went missing in the early morning of March 8.

Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang said "the No 1. reason is the 153 lives but there are also political considerations at play".

He believes the top leadership is under pressure to live up to the "China Dream" political slogan espoused by President Xi Jinping since he took power in November 2012. It envisages the rise of a powerful Chinese nation and people, among other notions.

"If the government did not respond in a big way to search for the missing plane, many Chinese would be critical of the political slogan and may even question why China is spending more on its military and not putting them (men and materiel) to use when the need arises," said Dr Li of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Dr Xu Liping, a foreign policy expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told The Straits Times that the government also sees in the crisis an opportunity to test and stretch its search- and-rescue capabilities.

Moreover, he believes China sees the need to live up to its oft-repeated pledge to better protect its citizens and interests overseas. For instance, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said this month that China would be setting up a worldwide 24-hour hotline for its citizens abroad.

Still, China's initial efforts have been criticised as insufficient, though aeronautical expert Wang Xiangsui believes it stems in part from a lack of knowledge.

"I believe the government has done a good job. Many didn't know there was no need to activate that many satellites as there was a specified search area initially," he said.

"But now with the search area expanded, China and others have responded to Malaysia's appeal for more satellite assistance."

Malaysia Airlines hunts for missing plane

Analysts say China wants to show itself as a responsible world power through its efforts, given that the remaining passengers are of 13 nationalities, including Malaysia, Australia and the US.

Dr Li said China's response this time also shows it has learnt from past mistakes. Beijing came under fire for its slow and modest response after deadly Super Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines last November, killing at least 6,200 people and leaving four million either homeless or with damaged homes. Its initial offer of US$100,000 (S$126,000) each from the government and the Red Cross was a pittance compared with the generous assistance from other countries, such as the US$20 million from the US.

Competition between China and the US as well as simmering tensions between China and South China Sea claimants like the Philippines and Vietnam are also factors behind its unprecedented search effort, said Dr Li.

"I think it will be regarded as a loss of face if China did not do enough this time and other countries turn out more successful in locating the plane," he added.

Observers say China wants to show it can handle ties well with a South-east Asian country, despite testing times and knowing that other countries wary of an assertive Beijing are watching closely for signs of bullying. It explains why despite growing criticisms from state media and netizens over Malaysia's handling of the investigations, the remarks from top Chinese leaders and government agencies have been positive.

But signs of frustration are there, said Dr Li, citing how the Xinhua news agency ran two commentaries daily on two consecutive days last week criticising the Malaysian government's handling of the search operations.

Another sign is how Premier Li Keqiang has had two phone chats with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, urging the Malaysians to step up search efforts and provide "more timely, accurate and comprehensive information to China".

"Chinese leaders rarely lose their temper in public against another country. They also know this is an unfortunate incident and that acting too aggressively could damage political ties and risk worsening matters if Malaysian government agencies cut back cooperation on the search efforts," said Dr Li.

"But the Xinhua commentaries, which have to be approved by government officials before publication, are a clear reflection of official frustration at Malaysia."

kianbeng@sph.com.sg

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Malaysia Airlines hunts for missing plane