MH370: DAY 21

Search 'a chance to assess China's capabilities'

THE Chinese military's search- and-rescue operation for the missing Malaysia Airlines plane has provided others with an opportunity to assess its capabilities and combat-readiness, which are vital to its long-term goal of building a blue-water fleet, say analysts.

And some have been impressed by China's efforts so far, particularly the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy's speed in deploying warships at short notice and over long distances to look for MH370, which carried 239 people, including 153 Chinese nationals.

China is reported to have activated around 15 warships and salvage vessels, with some taking part since Day One. After departing from southern Hainan island, some vessels sailed to waters off southern Vietnam, then to the Strait of Malacca and later westwards to the Bay of Bengal. Some are heading to the southern Indian Ocean off Perth to help in the search, now nearing the end of its third week.

"The long voyage to the southern Indian Ocean is a demonstration that China's navy and paramilitary vessels are capable of travelling great distances," regional security analyst Carl Thayer told The Straits Times.

China's indirect show of force could deepen concerns over its military might among neighbours, particularly those with competing territorial claims in the South China Sea: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Security fears have been heightened since Beijing flexed its muscles, by sending a three-vessel flotilla in an exercise around Christmas Island near Australia last month, for instance, and reportedly seizing disputed territories, like Scarborough Shoal in the contested Spratly islands in 2012.

But China argues such fears are baseless and aimed at perpetuating the China threat and derailing efforts to build a blue-water fleet commensurate with its status as a future superpower capable of protecting its overseas assets and people in foreign countries.

On that front, the current mission shows that China has made progress with the number and speed of assets deployed, said Singapore-based analyst Ian Storey.

"It underscores the growing capabilities and professionalism of the PLA Navy after a decade of modernisation," he added.

London-based maritime security expert Christian Le Miere said the distances travelled by Chinese vessels and the replenishment involved is also "definitely an issue other countries are aware of".

"Of course, these deployments are not a reflection of an ability to do so in a contested environment, but given China's growing global interests, they are likely a foretaste of things to come," the senior fellow at the International Institute for Security Studies (IISS) told The Straits Times.

Beijing-based maritime analyst Gary Li of IHS consulting firm said the current PLA Navy deployment is not reflective of any combat operations as the ships seem to have been selected for their endurance and capabilities.

"They are not conducting exercises or deploying sophisticated equipment," he added.

Professor Thayer of the University of New South Wales believes China will likely seek to play a leading role in multilateral institutions involved in search-and-rescue (SAR) work after the current operation. He cited how Chinese media had urged China to assume a bigger role in such operations.

"Some commentators suggested constructing posts and airfields around the South China Sea to support SAR efforts," he said.

But it takes two hands to clap, as others point out how China's SAR efforts have exposed the PLA Navy's unwillingness to work with other militaries.

Singapore-based analyst William Choong at the International Institute for Strategic Studies pointed to India's rejection of China's request for Chinese ships to conduct SAR efforts in the Andaman and Nicobar seas, knowing that China's other objective is to gather intelligence.