China's ice-breaking Snow Dragon research vessel can reach the suspected debris of missing flight MH370 in two days, departing from its current port of Perth in Australia, Chinese officials said yesterday.
The ship was ready to join the search effort if Australia said it was worth investigating satellite images from a remote patch of the southern India Ocean.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott yesterday said the objects spotted were the "best lead they have had so far".
China's Ministry of Transport and the Maritime Safety Administration had told the Xue Long, or Snow Dragon, to be on standby for the possible mission, according to a posting on the Sina Weibo account of the China Search and Rescue Centre.
It said the icebreaker would need about two days to sail the 2,500 kilometres to the site.
For the time being, only the Xue Long would be dispatched, as other Chinese ships already deployed in the effort in southern waters were too far away, and would need five days to make the trip.
Professor Wang Yanbin, who studied geophysics at the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences and has participated in three Chinese expeditions to the Antarctica on board the Snow Dragon, said the vessel's hi-tech instruments could help locate or retrieve any wreckage submerged or floating on the water.
"The ship has two helicopters that can be deployed to scout for floating debris," he said.
"A former pilot of the helicopter just spoke with me on the phone about possibly using the Snow Dragon in the search. We can do it and we should do it."
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said China would not immediately send other ships or aircraft.
"It's too far away from China's territory. China so far will only ask for help from Australian authorities, because their aircraft need to fly just three hours to get there," Li said.
"If China sends its fastest missile destroyer, it would take at least one-and-a-half days."
Beijing was paying great attention to Australia's announcement about the possible finding, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular press briefing yesterday.
He said China expected the Australian side to send vessels and airplanes as soon as possible to the site to investigate.
China's embassy in Australia had activated "emergency measures" upon news of the satellite imagery, a staff member at the embassy said, adding an emergency team had been set up by ambassador Ma Zhaoxu to ensure smooth communication with Australian authorities.
Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing mysteriously disappeared in the early hours of March 8.
Of the 239 people on board the flight, 154 of the passengers were Chinese.
Additional reporting by Zhang Hong