The largest rescue flotilla in Chinese naval history - four warships and five civilian and commercial vessels - was speeding overnight to waters between Malaysia and Vietnam where missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 may have crashed.
Three of the four warships were dispatched by the People's Liberation Army South Sea Fleet, including two of its biggest and most advanced amphibious dock landing ships, the 20,000-tonne Jinggangshan and Kunlunshan, as well as the missile destroyer Haikou.
The Haikou sailed from Sanya , Hainan , on Sunday afternoon and was due to arrive in the search zone last night. The Kunlunshan departed Zhanjiang , Guangdong, at 5pm on Sunday and was expected to arrive this morning.
The flotilla will join other Chinese ships already at the scene, including a coastguard vessel, three search and rescue ships from the Ministry of Transport and a commercial container ship operated by state-owned shipping giant Cosco, which was sailing in nearby waters and voluntarily joined the search mission. They all form part of a larger operation of more than 50 ships and dozens of search and rescue aircraft from at least 11 nations.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the reinforcements had indicated that the Central Military Commission, which oversees the PLA and is chaired by President Xi Jinping , was anxious to establish the fate of the Beijing-bound plane carrying 239 passengers and crew, including 153 mainlanders, that disappeared about an hour into its flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
"So far the rescue flotilla in the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam has failed to locate the plane, so it is necessary for China to send more ships as the search zone area is expanding," Li said.
"Dispatching the Jinggangshan and Kunlunshan means our navy is prepared for a longer and more wide-reaching search operation."
The landing dock ships are each carrying more than 100 marines, four helicopters, medical teams, life-saving equipment, underwater detection devices and stores of food and water.
Among the four warships, the 7,000-tonne Haikou is a fast long-range destroyer designed for air defence. It is equipped with the PLA's most advanced type 348 active phased array radar, air defence missiles and anti-ship missiles. The 2,400-tonne missile frigate Mianyang, which was sent by the North Sea Fleet, is capable of finding objects in deep water.
"Its active phased array radar systems can help locate objects underwater quickly and accurately," Li said, adding that anti-submarine helicopters on board the Mianyang and Haikou were also suitable for ocean search and rescue operations.
Zhang Junshe , a researcher at the Naval Military Studies Research Institute, told The Beijing News that the search would involve helicopters, marines and navy divers. The helicopters can each search up to 100 square kilometres of ocean around the ship, while the marines and navy divers would carry out underwater missions.
Separately, Taipei's defence ministry yesterday said it had also dispatched a frigate and a C-130 transport plane to join the search mission, the Central News Agency reported, joining two other patrol vessels from Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration.