MH370 tragedy a tough test for China

Beijing's response to missing Malaysian plane has demonstrated how China is strong in mobilising response forces, but weak in information gathering

A Chinese air force crew member looking for signs of the missing Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Since the aircraft's disappearance, Beijing's actions not only revealed its readiness - or lack of it - for handling such an emergency, but al
A Chinese air force crew member looking for signs of the missing Flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. Since the aircraft's disappearance, Beijing's actions not only revealed its readiness - or lack of it - for handling such an emergency, but also shined a light on China's standing among its neighbours in the region.PHOTO: XINHUA

THE mysterious disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER aircraft has presented China with a tough test: As the world's second-largest economy, does it possess the relevant hard and soft power to handle a major emergency involving its citizens outside its jurisdiction?

The ill-fated aircraft vanished on March 8 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, of whom 153 were Chinese nationals. Thus, understandably, China has a special interest in the incident.

The events in the 18 days since the aircraft's disappearance not only reveal China's readiness - or lack of it - for handling such an emergency, but also shines a light on its standing among its neighbours in the region. The report card is mixed.

Speedy mobilisation

TO BE fair to China, its mobilisation capacity was impressive.

Just hours after the disappearance of Flight MH370 was announced by the Malaysians on the morning of March 8, Beijing, at noon, set up a Joint Ministerial Conference on the Security Protection of Chinese Overseas (JMC), and mapped out its response strategy.

The JMC is headed by the Foreign Ministry, and includes representatives from government agencies, including public security, aviation, oceanic (or maritime) administration, communications, civil affairs, commerce, tourism, Customs and information.

While the Xinhua news release did not explain the set-up, this is likely to be a permanent committee set up to help coordinate efforts involving Chinese nationals overseas. Setting up such a collaborative committee had been a suggestion of the state security commission.

Thanks to the JMC's swift decision, the first Chinese civilian and naval vessels were able to reach the presumed site - where the aircraft was said to be when it lost contact with air traffic control, in the Gulf of Thailand - by the next day, on March 9.

The scale of civilian and military assets deployed was unprecedented. Nine vessels, including four advanced naval ships, six helicopters, two search aircraft and 10 satellites, were deployed.

Compared with the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, the coordination between civil and military efforts was much better this time. In 2008, then Premier Wen Jiabao openly lambasted the military for its slow response and inaction.

This effective mobilisation can be attributed to the newly created National Security Commission, which has helped improve coordination of policies and avoid fragmentation of efforts.

However, while China's mobilisation response was quick, it fell short on information gathering.

Its own satellites and radar systems did not yield anything meaningful in the first few days. The lack of accurate information seriously compromised its search and rescue effort in the crucial initial days.

China also failed to discover that the Malaysian government had been withholding information until it came out in the open.

For example, until the Malaysians disclosed that the aircraft had turned westward from its original north-east course and continued flying for another seven hours before losing contact altogether, the Chinese appeared to be in the dark about this.

Since Flight MH370 was en route to Beijing, its flight path over the South China Sea would have been within China's vicinity.

That China failed to detect a deviation from the path suggests that its own Global Positioning System - the Beidou Navigation Satellite System, which was supposed to cover the entire Asia-Pacific area by the end of this year and globally by 2020 - was not fully operational even in China's own backyard.

China's apparent lack of access to good radar and satellite information raises questions as to how it will be able to respond in a conflict situation and if lack of good information can inadvertently escalate tensions.

Deficit of trust

THE Flight MH370 incident also exposed China's inexperience in providing trauma relief to distressed relatives of the Chinese passengers on the plane.

Professor Li Jian of the Beijing University of Science and Technology said the relatives' agitated behaviour suggests they were in urgent need of psychological counselling.

Prof Li cited the example of the United States' Centre for Mental Health Services, which has an Emergency Services and Disaster Relief Branch that provides post-trauma psychological relief to disaster victims.

In China, non-governmental organisations started offering such services after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Just days before the plane vanished, on March 6, the Chinese State National Science Foundation adopted a study that recommended ways of providing psychological relief to disaster victims. But these government efforts came too late for the family members of Flight MH370 passengers.

The third area where China failed was in its news coverage. The Chinese media has shown itself to be way behind its foreign rivals in ferreting out information, with Chinese netizens noting that state media outlets filled their news pages simply by quoting foreign media.

Some pointed out that this was the inevitable result of the media in China being treated as a propaganda tool rather than as a vehicle of information, resulting in journalists who are unused to challenging authority.

A disgruntled journalist shared a circular purportedly sent by the Chinese Communist Party's propaganda department asking the media to focus on the ongoing annual parliamentary session that was taking place then, and not focus too much on news about the missing plane.

The media was also asked to report positively on the government's efforts to help family members.

Apart from China's emergency response capabilities, the Flight MH370 incident was also a test of the Asian power's status in the region. What it revealed is not encouraging.

As a participant in such a major search and rescue operation, China should enjoy cooperation from all relevant parties.

Yet, it found that both Malaysia and the United States were reluctant to share information with it. The US chose to leak information to the Western media rather than share it with China. Meanwhile, India denied Chinese rescue planes and vessels access to its air and sea space.

To be sure, other countries also reportedly delayed sharing information with each other. But given China's ambitions to be a major and regional power, the fact that China does not enjoy the trust of its neighbours should truly be a cause for concern.