Comments made by officials and experts observing the hunt for the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 have suggested that a number of false leads coming from China have notably hampered search efforts for the missing jet.
“The Chinese claims have exasperated some officials from the United States and other participating countries,” the New York Times said in an article published yesterday, pointing to a series of instances in which leads from China in the search have been discounted.
In the first week of the search, for example, China released satellite photos purporting to show possible wreckage from the missing jet. While Vietnamese authorities had already searched the area where the debris was spotted, crew was sent over to check again. The claim, according to the Times, triggered a rebuke from Malaysian officials that China had wasted time of other nations involved in the search.
On April 5, reports from China’s state-run media said that the Chinese search vessel Haixun 01 had detected electronic pings in the Indian Ocean. Although there was doubt surrounding the claims, search officials sent over the British vessel H.M.S. Echo, equipped with more sophisticated listening technology, to investigate, but it was soon after announced by the Australian government that the pings couldn’t be verified. The British vessel was pulled from Haixun 01’s search area and sent to an Australian vessel that had also detected four signals considered “the most promising lead” yet in the search.
Officials believe that the delay in deploying Echo cost searchers the opportunity to record more signals and narrow down the underwater search, according to the Times.
And while Chinese media platforms are quick to broadcast any positive development in China’s search for the jet, reports discounting the leads seem to trickle out more slowly:
Having blared out that Haixun 01 detected a possible signal from Flight 370, Xinhua seems a little tardy reporting the disconfirmation.
— Chris Buckley 储百亮 (@ChuBailiang) April 14, 2014
Statements from officials involved in the search have further alluded to this frustration:
“Everybody wants to find the plane,” said a senior Defense Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to appear overly critical of the Chinese. But, he continued, “false leads slow down the investigation.”[…]
In an interview, a high-level official in the Malaysian government stiffened when Chinese involvement in the search arose. “Really helpful, aren’t they?” he said sarcastically.
The Times points out that the negativity directed towards China’s missteps may have been less if China itself hadn’t continually criticized Malaysian authorities’ handling of the search.
As Chinese passengers make up a majority those onboard the ill-fated flight, it makes sense that China wanted to take the helm in finding the jet and even regain some lost prestige following condemnation towards the nation and its rather late involvement in aiding the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan.
But, from the viewpoint of Willy Lam, a specialist in Chinese strategic policies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the sophistication of China’s equipment in the search is underwhelming.
“According to the state propaganda, they are supposed to have sent the best they could muster, because it’s national prestige at stake, and they face a lot of pressure from the victims’ families,” Mr. Lam said to the Times.
“In spite of all the hoopla over China building an advanced military, they seem to have not much to show in this operation.”
Still, observers have (kind of) applauded China for its obvious determination and commitment to finding the plane.
“It’s possible that this has led some Chinese personnel to reach premature judgments based on limited or inconclusive observations,” Jonathan D. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was quoted as saying. “But this hardly seems unique to China.”