• Wed
  • Aug 20, 2014
  • Updated: 2:12am
Malaysia Airlines flight 370
CommentInsight & Opinion

Search for Flight 370 reveals limits of China's global leadership

Liang Pan says its peripheral role has been at odds with its stature today

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 April, 2014, 6:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 May, 2014, 2:33am

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has unexpectedly called into question China's rise, in particular whether it is ready to play the role of a global superpower.

The Chinese government has every reason to be concerned about the mysterious disappearance of the plane. First, 154 of the 227 passengers on board were Chinese citizens. Second, the plane was heading to Beijing, and its disappearance raised concerns of terrorism. Third, the plane's last contact with air traffic controllers was over the South China Sea, while the search zone has since been expanded to cover the Indian Ocean - both of which are considered to be China's "backyard".

However, thus far, China has been but one part of the multinational search effort, and some would say it has played only a peripheral role.

From a diplomatic standpoint, China appears to have little leverage to deal with Malaysia, a comparatively small nation.

Since the aircraft's disappearance, Malaysian officials have given ambiguous and contradictory information that may well have hindered search and rescue efforts. For instance, information that Malaysian military radar showed the plane had changed course was first revealed, then denied, and finally confirmed four days later by the prime minister.

In response, China could only urge Malaysia to be more open in sharing critical information. Beijing also delayed the delivery of a pair of pandas promised to Malaysia to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two countries, in a merely symbolic gesture of displeasure.

China's hard and soft powers continue to be tested. So far, they have been found wanting

China's intelligence resources have also been sidelined. The task of looking into the passengers' backgrounds was assigned to Interpol, while the FBI took charge of the forensic checks and data mining of the captain's flight simulator.

The search operation has put China's military preparedness and power projection ability to the test. Although it has dispatched 18 vessels, eight helicopters and three fixed-wing planes to join the search, it has struggled to keep pace with the shifts to different search zones, from the South China Sea to the Andaman Sea and then to the southern Indian Ocean. In contrast, the US naval force's presence appears ubiquitous. Behind this preparedness is its extensive network of military bases in the region, including in Thailand and Singapore.

The hunt for MH370 has shone a spotlight on China's technological capabilities, as well. The search corridor zone was established after data analysis by British satellite operator Inmarsat. China's satellites lack the ability to keep global civil aviation under surveillance.

Meanwhile, the undersea search for the plane is being carried out by the US navy's submersible robot Bluefin-21. Although China's own manned submarine, Jiaolong, can reach a depth of over 7,000 metres, it is unable to survey a large area of ocean floor.

And, the mainland media has been lagging in reporting much of the major news about the search for MH370. China did appear to have led the world with the Xinhua report that it had detected underwater signals possibly from the missing plane. But this claim was quickly discounted.

As the hunt for Flight 370 goes on, so China's hard and soft powers continue to be tested. So far, they have been found wanting; the best that can be said is that China has played the role of a regional power.

Liang Pan is a freelance writer based in New York who is undertaking postgraduate study on political communication and international relations at New York University


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This article is now closed to comments

"Liang Pan says China's peripheral role is at odds with its stature today."
No, China's peripheral role may be at odds with its propagandized self-image, but it was perfectly consistent with its international "stature", which is about the same as Bolivia's.
(I'm sorry, Bolivia is a bit harsh. Let's say Pakistan.)
If anything, the Chinese presence during the search was a distraction and an indulgence on the part of the other nations.
"Reveals limits of China's global leadership"? That must be a joke headline by the editors. China does not exercises any global leadership on anything, including trade and economics. Leadership? Please, give me a break. Or, at least, give me an example.
Lolitta Ho
I happen to agree with the author. China's 'soft power' is apparently not enough to propel it onto the international stage -- thus, now that an incident has occurred in its 'backyard', it can only twiddle its thumbs. I would call for the Chinese leaders to strengthen its soft power...
How does the SCMP select its writers? This writer is in New York studying in New York. Aren't there competent writers in this region or better qualified?
How About
It appears Liang Pan needs to finish his or her postgrad before attempting another infantile political analysis, why, the MH370 incident evidenced the satellite technology, Boeing & Airbus need to redesign commercial jets' avionics and trackability from the ground up. Muscling in on Malaysia Australia or USA isn't even an issue, why coz they the makers of those flight-satellite and the jet can't explain why all comercial flights are tracked by satellites launched on 1970's? Embarrassment or cover up?
But if it'll make the restive hawks at home feel less belittled, let's drink to that!
Yeah, only having a big mouth is not enough. So far China did not deliver anything of essence in this case.
People tend to "forget" that Malaysia, under British rule as Malaya, fought a long and costly war against Chinese supported Communist Terrorists, it is not surprising then that Malaysia has no trust in the PRC!
Everyone can you see that every country has been doing the searching only halfheartedly? Nobody wants to show off to the world the real face of their technological capability as far as satellite surveillance and underwater scouting are concerned. The Australian has later become keen in the search, so keen that nobody has ever expected, only because they want to take over the search therefore nobody would find out much in its own sea. This is done out of national security purpose. Mr Pan must have studied politics but his observation appears to be a bit simplistic.


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