Amid Malaysian flight mystery, reminders of regional rough seas

China's harsh words with Kuala Lumpur over fate of missing plane are part of broader rivalry over South China Sea

At least 150 Chinese nationals were on board Flight MH370, and after nine days without a resolution to the circumstances of the flight, Beijing has several times expressed public anger at the search effforts.
AFP/Getty Images

China on Saturday demanded that Malaysia provide better information about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared while on its way to Beijing a week ago.

The request came as Malaysia said the plane had been deliberately diverted off course, with whoever responsible taking with them scores of Chinese passengers on board the jet. But China’s continued blunt rhetoric against Kuala Lumpur is part of a broader regional rivalry over disputed territory that has been underscored, and which will remain bitter, once the focus of the multinational search operation moves on from the South China Sea.

"We demand that the Malaysian side continue to provide to China more thorough, accurate information," China's foreign ministry said, adding that it was sending a technical team to Malaysia to help with the probe.

The demand for Malaysia to step up its search, additionally asking it to involve more countries in the effort, mirrored the physical reality of Beijing's military and technological might, which has been on full tilt during the search operation in the guise of Chinese warships and sophisticated satellite deployments.

At least 150 Chinese nationals were on board Flight MH370, and after nine days without definitive information on the circumstances of the missing flight, Beijing has now repeatedly and publicly expressed its discontent.

Saturday’s statement followed an earlier pronouncement, including Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang on Monday acknowledging that while Malaysia had the "main responsibility" for both the search and the follow-up investigation, Beijing had a responsibility not only to participate but to "demand and urge" Malaysia to step up its efforts.

"The Chinese are drawing the conclusion that these guys are not ready for prime time," said Ernie Bower, a regional expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, to Reuters, referring to Malaysia and its efforts to find the mystery plane.

But while China’s show of force can reasonably be attributed to its interest in getting to the bottom of a mystery that affects its nationals, it’s difficult to divorce the rhetoric from the ongoing territorial dispute.

Separately Monday, China said that its coast guard ships had driven away two Philippine vessels which had tried to approach a shoal in the South China Sea — the latest flare-up of a long-running territorial dispute.

The incident was part of a broader, ongoing regional standoff, where China claims about 90 percent of the South China Sea for itself, displaying its reach on official maps with a so-called "nine-dash" line that stretches deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia.

But Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to the sea, which sits above potentially rich but largely unexplored oil and gas deposits.

“This has been the problem since the end of the Cold War and really since the end of world war two,” said Christopher Hughes, a regional expert at the London School of Economics to The Guardian. “They have entrenched rivalries over so many issues – territorial, historical and so on – that it is almost impossible to get them to move toward any meaningful multilateral system."

The South China Sea carries an estimated $5 trillion in ship-borne trade annually – including oil imports by China, Japan and South Korea.

While search efforts temporarily evoked rare goodwill among rivals in the last week, they are sure to prove temporary.

Two Chinese naval exercises in less than a year around the James Shoal, a disputed reef only some 50 miles off the Malaysian coast, have angered Malaysia and led to a significant shift in its approach to China’s claims to the disputed sea. The reef lies outside Malaysia's territorial waters, but inside its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

A January incident, in particular, prompted Malaysia to quietly step up cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam, the two Southeast Asian nations most outspoken over China's moves in the region. Malaysia has tried to tie Beijing to binding rules of conduct in the South China Sea, rules the United States supports as part of its efforts to keep Chinese regional ambitions in check.

While Malaysia has traditionally played down security concerns in pursuit of closer economic ties with China, its biggest trade partner, Beijing’s growing naval assertiveness continues to worry the country.

As a part of its search for the missing flight, China has deployed four warships, four coastguard vessels, eight aircraft and trained 10 satellites on a wide search area far from mainland China. 

The technological dominance has not be lost on observers. 

"Since we don't have that collaborative effort well established yet, I think the Chinese are, whether intentionally or unintentionally, sending a message to their citizens that Malaysia is a small country that's not able to manage [the search] well," said Bower.

Al Jazeera with Reuters. Additional reporting by Tom Kutsch.

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