- - Thursday, March 27, 2014

China is striving to take the lead in the largest international search for a missing aircraft — Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

As of this week, 26 nations including Australia, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates and the U.S. have taken part in the search utilizing substantial civilian and military equipment including air, sea, cyber and space assets.

But China is by far the most active, having deployed the largest number of aircraft, ships, satellites and personnel (mostly military) in waters near countries sensitive to China’s military presence.

There are good reasons why China is highly active in the search. The most obvious: 154 of the flight’s 239 passengers and crew were Chinese nationals.

But some analysts believe the search has given the Chinese military opportunities to survey waters and airspace, and gather information that would have been restricted for the People’s Liberation Army. Others postulate the search has been a bonanza for showing off the PLA’s capabilities and high-tech gear for a country that has been intoxicated to fulfill promises of a national revival promoted by the Chinese Communist Party as a grand “Chinese Dream.”

China has deployed in the search:

Two of its largest warships — the Jinggangshan and the Kunlunshan, both Type 071 amphibious transport dock vessels.

Its largest icebreaking supply and research vessel, the Ukrainian-built Xue Long.

The Haikou, a Type 052C destroyer.

The Mianyang, a Type 053H3 frigate.

The Qiandaohu, a 20,000-ton Type 0903 naval replenishment ship.

The Yongxingdao, a 10,000-ton Type 925 submarine support ship.

Two of the air force’s strategic airlifters, Russian-built Ilyushin-76s.

Nearly two dozen satellites.

By comparison, the U.S. has dispatched a towed pinger locator, a Navy P-3 Orion and a P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft, two Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and a National Transportation Safety Board panel and an FBI team.

China’s robust participation has created some trust issues among the searching nations. Malaysia was reluctant to reveal raw data from its military radar system that tracked the missing plane, presumably over fears of disclosing sensitive secrets about its radar capabilities, especially the rate and range they can gather aviation data. Beijing has pushed for Kuala Lumpur to share all of its radar intelligence.

While the PLA’s vessels and aircraft were combing key areas in the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, China rejected in anger the Malaysian announcement that Flight MH370 crashed into the Indian Ocean with no survivors — likely because the conclusion might end the military’s roaming activities in the region.

Beijing has vowed to continue the search until the plane or its wreckage is found, a convenient justification for a de facto permanent Chinese military presence, should the plane never be found.

China has territorial disputes with most of the nations along the possible flight path of the missing plane, including Vietnam, India, the Philippines and Malaysia. Vietnam took the high road in allowing two PLA Tu-154 jets to enter its airspace in the search; Australia also permitted two Chinese military IL-76 transport aircraft to use its air force base in Perth.

But India reportedly rejected China’s request to search sensitive parts of the Indian-controlled Andaman Sea and Nicobar Islands, highlighting New Delhi’s growing wariness of China’s regional power.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_miles.