China’s response to the disappearance of Flight MH370 has been an impressive deployment of a combined flotilla of military and civilian ships. At the same time voices in China’s official media have criticized the Malaysian-led operation. But a closer look at China’s response raises some interesting questions about its government’s choice of priorities. In the crucial first few days of the search for the airliner and the 239 people on board, Beijing prioritized its territorial battle with the Philippines over the hunt for possible survivors.
Flight MH370 disappeared from civilian radar screens over the South China Sea, between Malaysia and Vietnam in the early hours of Saturday March 8, local time, but the world was not alerted until the plane failed to land in Beijing at 6:30 a.m. Shortly afterwards a commercial bulk carrier, the Tai Shun Hai operated by COSCO, which happened to be sailing nearby, changed course and, on Sunday, became the first Chinese vessel to arrive in the area where the plane was thought to have crashed.
During the course of Saturday, several Chinese government ships were tasked to the scene. The first to actually join the search was China Coast Guard vessel 3411, described in official media as being, “on duty in nearby sea areas.” According to the official news agency Xinhua, this vessel reached Vietnamese waters at 1 p.m. on Sunday, about 36 hours after the plane was declared missing. A Chinese frigate, the Mianyang, “which was on a mission in the Nansha [Spratly islands’] waters when receiving the command”, according to Xinhua, “left for the suspected area at about 11:50 pm Saturday night.” It arrived there at 3:50 a.m. on Monday.
During Saturday the People’s Liberation Army-Navy ordered three ships docked in mainland ports to join the search effort. Those ships, the missile destroyer Haikou and the amphibious dock landing ships Jinggangshan and Kunlunshan, had to sail from Sanya on Hainan Island and Zhanjiang in Guangdong province. For Gary Li, Senior Analyst with IHS Maritime in Beijing, the PLA-N’s deployment was impressive. The Jinggangshan and Kunlunshan, “were dispatched almost immediately with specialist teams and rescue supplies on board. This type of reaction time is highly unusual for Chinese military operations so it’s actually quite commendable,” he notes.
Speedy as the deployment was, the ships had to steam about 1000 nautical miles from their bases to reach the initial search area. It took them until Tuesday and Wednesday to arrive – up to four days after the plane disappeared. At around the same time, the Ministry of Transport also dispatched two ships. The South China Sea Rescue 115 arrived at the suspected crash site at about 8 p.m. on Monday and a partner vessel, Rescue 101, arrived on Tuesday.
What’s striking is that most of these ships were sent from far away when vessels much closer to the search site were not used. Throughout the whole period immediately after the disappearance of the plane, the China Coast Guard had several ships on duty in the Spratly islands, only half the distance from the initial search area as the mainland. However only one of them was used: 3411. Instead, the Coast Guard deployed its largest vessel, the Haixun 31, from Sanya. The Haixun 31 is far larger and more capable than the ships that were closer to the scene but its response time was much slower: it arrived in the search area on Tuesday afternoon. It would appear that the China Coast Guard chose to prioritize something more important than life and death: territory.
Throughout the search for MH370, at least five China Coast Guard ships were blockading features in the Spratly Islands: three near Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines island of Luzon and two around the Second Thomas Shoal off Palawan (known as Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines and Ren’ai Jiao in China). Both are highly contested pieces of ocean real estate in the wider battle for control of the South China Sea. China effectively took over Scarborough Shoal in April 2012 and it appears to be trying to do the same thing on the Second Thomas Shoal. The difference at the Second Thomas Shoal (a coral reef barely above water) is that a tiny garrison of Filipino marines has occupied it since 1999. In May of that year, the Philippines’ navy deliberately ran aground a Second World War tank landing ship to stake a physical claim to the Shoal. As a stunning report in The New York Times last year illustrated, life on board the rusting hulk is tough in the extreme.
Chinese ships began to lay siege around the grounded ship in the middle of last year; preventing the regular military logistical run reaching the marines living on board. Then, in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, the Chinese ships disappeared, returning to visit only every few days. Since then the siege has tightened up again. On March 9, while other Chinese government ships were making their way to the supposed crash site of MH370, two China Coast Guard ships were preventing two Philippines ships from reaching the reef. According to the Chinese, the ships were carrying construction materials intended to reinforce the marine’s position on the Shoal.
The timing seems significant. March 30 is the deadline for the Philippines’ government to submit its evidence to the international Arbitral Tribunal hearing a case that could, in effect, rule China’s U-shaped-line claim in the South China Sea incompatible with international law. In late February Filipino newspapers reported claims that Chinese diplomats had offered “incentives” to the Philippines to drop the case. Among the incentives, according to the papers, was an offer to end China’s blockade of Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines declined the offer and since then the blockade of Second Thomas Shoal has become tighter. Unable to reach the marines by sea, the military is now dropping supplies of food and water from the air. This, it would seem, is a deliberate political strategy by Beijing – to starve out the garrison, force the marines to abandon their position and allow China to repeat its success at Scarborough Shoal. This strategy is more important to the Chinese leadership than the hunt for MH370.
We now know that there was no crash site in the South China Sea. But what if there had been? What if, by some miracle, a group of survivors had been clinging to a life raft in the waters between Malaysia and Vietnam? That two-day delay in reaching the search area could have been the difference between life and death. China’s Coast Guard appears to believe that grabbing territory is more important than that.
Bill Hayton is the author of South China Sea: Dangerous Ground, to be published later this year by Yale University Press.