India has rejected a Chinese request to enter territorial waters in the Andaman Sea in an effort to search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 over concerns that the request might be an excuse for military snooping.
“There was no need for anybody else to search the area,” Press Trust of India, the country’s largest news agency, quoted unidentified government sources as saying.
India thus “politely rejected” the Chinese request to allow People’s Liberation Army Navy ships enter waters near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The request was made on Wednesday and entailed the dispatch of four ships, including two frigates and a salvage vessel.
It came on the same day PLA Navy spokesman Liang Yang said Chinese search efforts would shift westwards and focus on two areas: the Andaman Sea and waters southwest of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
India has already deployed its coast guard, four warships and three military aircraft to search the Andaman Sea for clues over the plane’s whereabouts, an unnamed navy officer told the Times of India, the country’s most-widely read English-language newspaper.
Chinese warships would have brought no new capabilities to that search, Ashley J. Tellis, a security and defence expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the South China Morning Post. "I am surprised the Chinese actually made the request, given that their search capabilities in the region are inferior to India's," he said.
Two further Indian aircraft are joined the international search force based in Malaysia on Friday, the paper reported.
Three Chinese military aircraft left Sanya, Hainan province, for Malaysia on Friday morning to join the search effort, according to a statement on the Ministry of Defence website.
A special unit was established at the the Chinese air force headquarters on Thursday to oversee the search missions. The participation of the Chinese military had been approved by the Malaysian authorities, the online statement by the ministry's spokesman Colonel Shen Jinke said.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said he considered the Chinese request "unusual", since Indian ships were altready scouring the area requested by the PLA. "China should not use a tragedy to gain access for naval probing," he said.
Chinese military vessels already are a regular presence in the Indian Ocean’s international waters. Indian military observers have in the past raised concerns over Chinese encroachment in India’s regional sphere of influence.
Last month, China’s largest amphibious landing ship, the Changbaishan, and two destroyers conducted an exercise focused on anti-piracy in the Indian Ocean.
Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of international relations at the University of Westminster in London, said India's rejection also reflected a growing wariness between the two armed forces, and their naval arms in particular.
"Of all the wings of the military, Indian navy needs China most as a threat to legitimise its share of the budgetary pie," he said. "Would China allow Indian ships in its territorial waters close to its naval installations?"
On Thursday, China’s President Xi Jinping told India’s new ambassador to the country Ashok K Kantha that he was a proponent of advancing bilateral ties, which have been mired in territorial disputes in the Himalayas and India’s hospitality for the Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
“Furthering strategic partnership with India is my historic mission,” Xi told the ambassador, Reuters reported.
Most of the 227 people on board on the missing Malaysian airliner are Chinese, 12 are Indian citizens.
The search has since focused on an area in the southern Indian Ocean 2,260km off the coast of Perth, Australia, where satellite imagery found two large floating objects.
Five Chinese ships are on route to the site, the country’s National Maritime Search and Rescue Centre said on Friday. The Chinese ice breaker Xuelong, currently at harbour in Perth, is set to join the search effort as soon as possible, the Xinhua news agency said.
The press sections of the Chinese embassy in New Delhi and the Indian embassy in Beijing could not be reached for immediate comment.