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A Malaysia Airlines plane, Perth International Airport, March 25, 2014 (Greg Wood - Pool/Getty Images)

Geopolitics lurk amid the MH370 tragedy

John Lee

For idealists, the 25 or so nations searching for any debris from the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is a rare example of international cooperation in the face of a humanitarian tragedy.

After all, political, bureaucratic and military officials from countries such as the United States, China, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Thailand, Malaysia and Australia are all contributing military hardware, technology, intelligence and manpower to end the mystery of what happened to MH370. If an undergraduate model United Nations wanted an illustration of multilateral collaboration, this would be it.

Some countries clearly have more at stake in the search than others. Given that possible debris was spotted off the coast of Western Australia, Canberra is heading the search for the most promising lead.

The fact that it was a Malaysia Airlines flight means that Kuala Lumpur is ‘central command’ in terms of ostensibly coordinating the international effort, dissemination of public information and managing government-to-government relations about the issue — a task which has embarrassed the country due to its often bumbling and inept performance.

But there is probably more at stake for China than any other country — and not just because over two-thirds of the passengers were Chinese citizens.

There is no reason to doubt that Chinese President Xi Jinping is genuinely “devastated” by the tragedy as was reported in his conversation with Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

But model UN participants should take note: the smell of politics and geopolitics is everywhere, especially when it comes to Beijing’s reaction and response.

The immediate clue that finding out what happened to MH370 matters to Beijing is the fact that the country’s propaganda officials have been supervising and monitoring coverage and comment about the investigation and search for debris.

The state media has been offering a running commentary on the earnest activities of Beijing’s leaders coordinating the search from the Chinese side, meeting with foreign officials to expedite the search, and demanding answers from the Malaysians when none have been forthcoming.

State reporting has also spruiked the ‘sophistication’ of Chinese military hardware used to conduct the search, such as the heavy duty and remodelled Chinese IL-76 aircraft (with a large Chinese flag freshly painted on the body) as well as the country’s high-imaging satellites, radar and infra-red imaging technologies.

To be sure, and when great powers suffer these kinds of tragedies, they naturally want answers and grow frustrated with the lack of progress on this front by other countries.

It is natural that China would deploy resources at its disposal that smaller powers might not have.

But there is a domestic political context here. Chinese officials have been criticised for not stepping up to the plate when humanitarian crises have affected their citizens in the past or, even worse, suppressing grieving voices of disapproval or even arresting protestors wanting more a more competent official response.

For example, in November 2002 when the first case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome appeared in Guangdong province, the government did not even report these instances to the World Health Organisation until February 2003.

Even after February 2003 and in their determination to avoid negative publicity during a period of leadership transition, the spread of SARS was exacerbated by officials who pretended that the problem did not exist.

When the disease reached Hong Kong from China, officials instructed state media to report that the Hong Kong strain came from elsewhere despite all expert evidence to the contrary. It was not until April 2003 that Beijing changed course, sacking the Health Minister and Beijing Mayor.

Amid widespread public criticism of the Chinese Communist Party, incoming President Hu Jintao ordered officials to finally report the spread of SARS accurately, leading to an eight-fold increase in the number of reported SARS infections from previous official figures.

Another example is the 7.9 magnitude earthquake which hit Sichuan province in May 2008, followed by a secondary quake in August 2008. Thousands of the quake’s victims were children crushed in shoddily built schools, a fact made worse by the spectacle of well-built government buildings standing unaffected metres away.

Protests by grieving parents were suppressed and criticised by the government as ‘unpatriotic’. Although Chinese officials refused to release the number of students who died or their names, one official report was leaked and estimated that up to 10,000 students lost their lives in the collapse of 7,000 classrooms and dormitory rooms.

When reports emerged in July 2008 that local governments in the province had begun a systematic campaign to buy the silence of angry parents whose children had died with a $US8,800 payment and guarantee of a pension in exchange for silence, outrage throughout the country ensued.

The far more media-savvy administration under President Xi has immediately understood that the government needs to show that it is responsive, pro-active and compassionate during instances of humanitarian tragedy. In this case, it has been made easy by the fact that it was a foreign airline that has disappeared and a foreign government that bears the brunt of anger.

Even so, Beijing is determined to do what it takes, and be seen to be doing what it takes, to find answers for the relatives of Chinese victims on board MH370. Hence, Chinese officials have bullied and ridiculed seemingly incompetent and clueless Malaysian counterparts, allowed state media to show the outrage of relatives while demanding justice and closure for these relatives, in addition to making a public show of committing its resources to the search.

As Beijing would argue, and in lending weight to its argument that authoritarian regimes can also be caring and responsive, this is precisely what a good government on the side of its people ought to do.

So as far as the considerations of domestic politics are concerned, there is nothing too unusual, let alone sinister, about how China has responded to the MH370 tragedy. But there is also a geopolitical game at hand, which will make for far more uncomfortable regional reading.

It is well known that a number of countries have competing claims to maritime regions in the South China Sea, the body of water where MH370 first disappeared from radar screens. The most significant claimant is China, whose infamous nine-dash claim line covers some 90 per cent of the South China Sea, putting Beijing at odds with claims made by Hanoi, Manila, Brunei, Kuala Lumpur, and most recently Jakarta.

So far China has lacked the naval (military) and maritime (civilian) wherewithal to actually exercise control over the South China Sea. Even so, it is engaged in what might be called a ‘talk and take’ strategy: speak the language of negotiation without committing to any binding agreement and consolidate its de facto control of disputed areas square mile by square mile, all the while.

To Chinese frustration, and in deploying its unmatched arsenal of aircraft carriers, search and surveillance vessels and aircraft, satellite imagery and radar reach, the US unilaterally expanded the search area across the South China Sea (and towards the Indian Ocean).

This is embarrassing for Beijing because it can hardly claim de facto sovereignty and control over an area it calls its maritime backyard if it cannot even lead the search for the debris of a flight bound for Beijing and filled mainly with Chinese passengers.

Indeed, there has long been criticisms within China that the People’s Liberation Army’s emphasis on new generation submarines, ballistic missiles, cyber warfare technology and other anti-access and sea denial capabilities does little for the soft power of a country that claims such a vast maritime territory as its own.

Remember that the PLA was profoundly embarrassed when it lacked the capacity to help victims of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami in the region (since submarines are not very helpful in a humanitarian crisis) while the US deployed its aircraft carriers and other vessels in a show of compassion and strength.

It is no wonder that in the search for MH370 debris, Beijing has been keen to showcase what capabilities it has to its own people and the region. It is also not surprising that Kuala Lumpur has been far more comfortable in seeking military help from Americans, Australians and even long-time rival Singapore than from China in the current search.

But just as Beijing, like the other South China Sea claimants, is keen to establish its ability to conduct the search in its allegedly ‘sovereign’ waters, the PLA has also been coy about what its true capabilities that it can deploy in the search actually are. This is not because it is trying to hide its strength, but because there are still significant gaps in the PLA Navy’s ability to exercise control and surveillance in maritime areas it calls its own.

It would be too cynical and unfair to claim that President Xi and his government are not genuinely devastated by the likely death of 150 Chinese citizens on board MH370. But it would be naïve to believe that achieving closure for the grieving relatives is the only thing going on in the search for the ill-fated plane.

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