One of the world’s greatest aviation mysteries yet has united rival countries behind a common goal, at least on paper.
Over the past few weeks, planes and ships from Australia, New Zealand, United States, Japan, Malaysia China and South Korea and Britain have been scouring the southern Indian Ocean west of Perth, where the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 that was supposed to have landed in Beijing on March 8 was thought to have ended its flight. It had 239 people on board.
Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, commenting on March 31 on the now month-long search: said: “It demonstrates that in a humanitarian cause the nations of this region can come together for the betterment of humanity.”
Malaysian premier Najib Razak, while on a visit to Perth on April 3 to thank members of the international search party, said: “This has been a remarkable effort, bringing together nations from around the world.”
After all, ties between Japan and China can get testy, while the American “pivot” towards Asia has raised the hackles of an increasingly assertive China, now embroiled in several disputes with its neighbours over islands in the South China Sea.
Yet all the different countries’ ships and planes movements are now being coordinated on a daily basis by the Australian search authorities, whose efforts are publicised by the Joint Agency Coordination Centre (JACC) in Perth.
The niceties, however, belie what appears to be a subtle one-upmanship within the search party.
Reporters tracking the progress of the search couldn’t help but notice how reports on finds by China’s contingent – easily the biggest with two Ilyushin aircraft and seven ships - have been publicised independently of Australian search authorities, instead of first being assessed for credibility like the finds of other nations’ vessels.
China’s official Xinhua news agency, for example, issued a curious report early on April 2 that a Chinese ship had retrieved a beacon that might have been cast into the sea by aircraft tasked with the hunt.
The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, which is overseeing search effort, had been routinely getting search planes to throw global positioning system buoys into the sea to track drift rates and directions.
On the night of April 5, with the clock ticking down on the battery life of MH370’s flight data recorder beacon, Xinhua created waves by announcing that Chinese naval vessel Haixun 01 had detected an underwater acoustic signal with a frequency used by such devices.
Overnight, JACC head Retired Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston stated it was not possible to verify any connection with the missing plane.
“The RCC in Australia has spoke to the RCC in China and asked for any further information that may be relevant,” he said in statement. RCC refers to Rescue Coordination Centre.
Mr Houston had his hands full the next morning urging the press not to speculate on the credibility of any leads, given the long and painstaking process with which each had to be investigated and verified or discounted.
There had been, and there will be, many more leads to come, he said.
“Speculation and unconfirmed reports can see the loved ones of the passengers put through terrible stress," he added.
What was more intriguing about the April 5 Xinhua report, however, was that the coordinates where Haixun 01 detected the “ping” appeared to fall outside of the search area drawn up by Australian search authorities. It gave the impression that the Chinese were operating independently of the coordinators.
Mr Houston could not confirm or deny this when questioned by journalists, but quickly sidestepped the issue by saying it was inevitable search authorities are told about finds the same time as news is published because of embedded journalists on search vessels.
He was “completely comfortable” with the way the Chinese government had informed the Australian authorities, he was quick to add.
Asked if China was sharing its information, he said: “China is sharing everything that is relevant to the search.”
While he said language differences were sometimes a problem, he urged people to dwell on any possible kinks.
“I think we should be focusing on the positives and not start saying: ‘Well are they doing this? Are they doing that?’,” he said. “I am very satisfied with the consultation and coordination that we are building with our Chinese friends.”
As the search enters its second month, it remains to be seen if such tact will be enough to smooth over any possible firstname.lastname@example.org