Malaysia Airlines MH370: China's unusual anger and finger-pointing

Regional tensions and suspicions only partly explain Beijing's unusual anger and orchestrated finger-pointing over the search for Malaysian Flight MH370, Patrick Brown writes.

Regional tensions and rivalries only partly explain Beijing's 'campaign of vilification'

Seemingly encouraged by the Chinese government., angry relatives of Chinese passengers aboard missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 plane protested outside the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, (Kim Kyung-Hoon / Reuters)

Disaster often brings out the best in us, setting the stage for demonstrations of ingenuity, heroic self-sacrifice, altruism and kindness to strangers.

The loss of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 hasn't worked out like that. In the face of an extraordinarily difficult challenge, few have excelled.

The two countries most deeply involved, Malaysia and China, have allowed petty national pride to get in the way of quiet efficiency and co-operation, blaming each other for incompetence as they stumbled through the frustrating effort to find the lost plane.

It is still not clear why it took a whole week for Malaysia to announce that traces of the plane were picked up by military radar, and by the British satellite company Inmarsat, not that many hours after civilian air traffic control had reported it missing.

Inmarsat's analysis was announced only on March 15, when Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak revealed that an armada of 43 ships and 58 aircraft from 14 countries had been looking in the wrong place for a week.

China's official news agency Xinhua then accused Malaysia of "either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information in a full and timely manner," and Beijing's foreign ministry has been subjecting Malaysia to almost daily harangues demanding "more thorough and accurate information” ever since.

In response, Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein pointed out: "Can I also remind you that we received satellite data from China, regarding sightings in the South China Sea, which made us distract ourselves from the search and rescue to search areas that had already been searched?"

Not exactly the way for two neighbours and close trading partners to be coordinating their efforts on something as important as this.

Heroic national effort

China's contribution to the search for the lost plane, undeniably larger than any previous such international outreach, is being reported in the official media as a great national effort to recover citizens and assist less grand neighbours.

The gigantic Ilyushin IL-76 cargo planes sent to Australia to help in this latter stage of the search — "with a rich-red Chinese flag, and a sky-blue hull" — were greeted "with a rare ripple of enthusiasm" when they landed, Xinhua reported.

One of the two Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft arrives in Perth, Aust., to help in in the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. (Reuters)

The fact that they first landed at the wrong airport, Perth International instead of the Pearce military airbase, where the international search is being coordinated from, has not been mentioned in the Chinese press.

And while the planes have no particular search and rescue capability or equipment, Xinhua underlines that the planes’ windows give them " a very good visual  search capacity."

Of course it is arguable whether any country leading the search in such an extraordinary case would have produced faster or better results.

But the recriminations, and the unspoken national stereotypes behind them, are symptomatic of the tensions in the region associated with China's growing strength and assertiveness.

In addition to a reluctance on all sides to be candid about satellite and radar capacities and weaknesses, there's a sense that China's motives for dispatching a large chunk of its navy and aircraft in this effort might not be entirely altruistic.

This is, after all, a chance for a good look around a neighbourhood rife with territorial disputes. The search doubles as the kind of military exercise that would  normally be impossible to mount without provoking a regional crisis.

India is reported to have refused permission for China to join its search zone when it was thought the plane might have headed in that direction, on the grounds that the offer was a pretext for spying.

Manipulating the grieving relatives

These last days I have been very glad not to be in Beijing reporting on China. If I had, I would surely have been assigned to the Lidu Hotel for the announcement to the relatives of those doomed passengers that Malaysia is now certain that the plane crashed in the vast reaches of the southern Indian Ocean — far from the original search site — and that there were no survivors.

An official with the British satellite company Inmarsat demonstrates how the company used wave phenomenon to help get a fix on the pings it picked up from Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, pings that helped convince Malaysian authorities of the plane's final destination. (Andrew Winning / Reuters)

The relatives, in the limbo of a depressing hotel near the Beijing airport for more than three weeks, have been simmering with rage over the way they have been treated by Chinese, Malaysian and airline officials.

Frustrated by the slowness of the search and the poor provision of information, they have been fiercely nursing vain hopes of a miracle.

There was surely a dignified and compassionate way to tell them that hope is lost. But instead many of them heard it first via a text message in English, which most of them don't speak.

They were then given the bad news in a confined space with an uncontrollable herd of reporters and camera operators on hand to record the ensuing mayhem.

China, where demonstrations are forbidden, and people are locked up for speaking out against injustice, is now encouraging the MH370 relatives to take to the streets in a campaign of vilification against Malaysia.

The families have enormous public sympathy in China, and it’s convenient for a government which is claiming credit for heroic efforts to find the plane to blame Malaysia for the unsatisfactory results.

Earlier this week, officials even handed out professionally printed placards and T-shirts, and escorted the relatives down to the Malaysian embassy to shout slogans accusing the Malaysian government of murder and cover-up.

This is one disaster that seems not to have brought out the best in anyone. And the fight over compensation hasn't even begun.


Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts