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Background Briefing: China’s Choice: Harass the Philippines or Rescue Chinese Nationals on MH370 Carlyle A. Thayer March 27, 2014
[client name deleted] We request your assessment of and reaction to this report: (http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/chinas-national-priorities-in-hunt-for-mh370/). It says China activated only one of at least five Coast Guard ships in the Spratly islands that were closer to the suspected crash site in the Gulf of Thailand/South China Sea in the initial aftermath of the missing MH370 plane on March 8. The deployment is said to reflect that China prioritizes the need to protect the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal over the need to rescue its nationals. We request your assessment of China's naval deployments during the search for the MH370 flight. Our concerns are listed below: Q1 Do you have more details that can help confirm if China did make such a deployment as reported in the above article? If yes, what do you think are the possible reasons for this deployment? Does it show that protecting territorial sovereignty has a higher priority for China? ANSWER: The two China Coast Guard vessels deployed at second Thomas Shoal were the closest by far of any Chinese vessels on station in the South China Sea at the time the MH370 went missing. If China wanted to quickly deploy ships to the suspected crash site these ships would be the closest. The steaming distance from the port of Sanya, Hainan island, to the tip of southern Vietnam is marginally shorter than the distance from Scarborough Shoal to the same location. The Chinese ships at Scarborough Shoal could have been dispatched directly to the Gulf of Thailand/South China Sea. But China dispatched its rescue ships from the mainland to Sanya and then to the Gulf of Thailand/South China Sea. It kept the ships at Scarborough Shoal on station to protect Chinese claims to sovereignty. What is clear is that the day after MH370 went missing, the two Chinese Coast Guard vessels at Second Thomas Shoal, which could have been dispatched a day earlier to the crash site, were involved on March 9 in physically preventing the Philippines from supplying its marines at Second Thomas Shoal.
2 China obviously had fore knowledge of the resupply effort and made the decision to keep the Coast Guard vessels on station to prevent resupply. China charged that the Philippines was attempting to take construction materials to Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippines denied this but stated that resupply included materials to make the life of the marines easier. This meant that Chinese vessels at Second Thomas Shoal were not considered for search and rescue efforts in the search area in the Gulf of Thailand/South China Sea. This confirms the central thesis of the article in The Diplomat. In contrast, the Philippine media reported on March 8, the day the MH370 went missing, that the Philippines’ Western Command had begun mapping out search and rescue operations for the MH370. The Philippines promptly dispatched three navy patrol boats and a surveillance aircraft to assist the Malaysia-led SAR efforts. On March 8, Chinese media announced that its largest paramilitary vessel, Haixun 31, was heading to Sanya where it would standby for participation in the SAR operations. The Chinese media also reported that eight ships from the Nanhai Rescue Bureau and Hainan Maritime Safety Administration are waiting for orders at Sanya. On Sunday March 9, Tai Shun Hai of China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company arrived at the search area at 9am and commenced searching. It could have been joined by the Coast Guard vessels at Second Thomas Shoal. Xinhua reported on March 9 that the South China Sea Rescue 101 ship, with an emergency response team, was ready to set sail from Sanya. It was to join the South China Sea Rescue 116 ship at the rescue site. Both ships had helipads and helicopters for SAR operations. Xinhua reported that it would take two days for these ships to reach the search area. Also on March 9, Xinhua reported that two PLAN warships, Jinggangshan and Mianyang were on their way to search area. By March 9 the media reported that between 22-34 aircraft and 40-45 ships were deployed to the search area by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Australia, China and the United States. Malaysia deployed the largest number including 14 navy ships, 13 coast guard vessels, and 16 aircraft (eleven air force and five coast guard). China committed a total of six ships from the navy, coast guard and a commercial vessel. Q2- Since March 8, China has reportedly deployed 15 warships and transport ships, which some believed to have travelled from the South China Sea, to the Malacca Straits, west to the Bay of Bengal, and down to the southern Indian Ocean in search of the missing plane. How significant is the length of the route and the search mission, and the number of ships deployed? ANSWER: This would appear to be China’s largest deployment of ships for a search and rescue mission. The long voyage to the southern Indian Ocean is a demonstration that China’s navy and paramilitary vessels are capable of travelling great distances. China already had an ice breaker docked in Australia after its rescue effort in Antarctica.
3 The number of ships is a reflection of China’s stake in the search and rescue mission because 154 of the 239 passengers and crew were Chinese nationals. The Indian Ocean suspected crash site is in a remote area. A successful search effort will depend on satellites and aircraft locating suspected wreckage and ships on station to recover the wreckage. Q3, Concerns spiked among regional countries after a flotilla comprising amphibious landing craft Changbaishan and the Wuhan and Haikou destroyers held military exercises in waters between Christmas Island and Indonesia in early February. The ships had sailed through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra, going close to Christmas Island before entering the Lombok Strait next to Bali. Do you think regional countries are watching closely Chinese navy's deployments, and what exactly, and why? ANSWER: All littoral states in the South China Sea/Indian Ocean area monitored the progress of the Chinese flotilla closely. All these countries are interested in assessing Chinese naval capabilities and intentions. Malaysia, which first denied any knowledge of the Chinese flotilla, later revealed that it monitored the Chinese ships. Malaysia noted that they exercised innocent passage through Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone and passed by – but did not stop at – James Shoal. The oath taking ceremony at James Shoal, a repeat of last year’s effort, however, is a direct challenge to Malaysia’s sovereign jurisdiction. Australian authorities were surprised at the passage of Chinese vessels through the Lombok Strait. The size of the flotilla does not represent a military threat but it demonstrates China’s intent to develop into a major maritime power and to use that power to exercise influence over regional states in furtherance of China’s national interest. Q4, Besides trying to locate the plane and rescue its people, what do you think are the other objectives for the Chinese navy in its search-and-rescue operations that are said to be the country's largest-ever, and why? What lessons could the Chinese navy draw from this operation and what changes could we expect to see going forward, and why? ANSWER: China undoubtedly had a mix of motives in deploying the largest number of naval, coast guard and air assets to MH370 search and rescue mission. The main motivation is humanitarian due to the large number of Chinese nationals on the plane. Second, China was delivering two message, one internally and one externally. China was trying to pre-empt any domestic criticism of its response to the MH370 disappearance. In doing so, however, China went beyond normal diplomatic bounds to criticize Malaysia’s handling of the SAR operations as they were underway. The Chinese media adopted a chauvinistic tone that deprecated not only Malaysia Airlines but the Malaysian government. China also sought to demonstrate its “soft maritime power” to regional states so it would not be upstaged by the efforts of other countries, including the United States. The Chinese media almost from the start, began to draw the lesson that the MH370 tragedy meant that in future China should assume major responsibility in SAR
4 operations. Some commentators suggested constructing ports and airfields around the South China Sea to support SAR efforts. China is likely to play a leading role in multilateral institutions involved in future SAR. China is likely to promote conspiracy theories about how Malaysia, the United States and other countries withheld vital information from China. China will push for these countries to be more transparent about data gathered by satellite and military radar. It is clear that the MH370 incident has revealed deficiencies in how information from civil radar, military radar, commercial satellites and intelligence-gathering satellites is fused. But China has to avoid appearing disingenuous by sharing data gathered by its military radar and satellites as well.
Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “China’s Choice: Harass the Philippines or Rescue Chinese Nationals on MH370?,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, March 27, 2014. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.