China, the media and the search for MH370

Posted by on Apr 4, 2014 in Global, South China Sea | No Comments


USS Pinckney assists with  Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 recovery efforts.

An article for the CSIS CogitAsia blog on how the search for the missing Malaysian airliner has demonstrated the capabilities gap between China and the US and its allies but also how a combination of US operational secrecy and China’s developing public diplomacy has concealed the extent of that gap leaving a misleading impression of the balance of capabilities in the region. Link to the published article here. The unedited text as originally submitted is below.

An unprecedented military coalition is operating off the coast of western Australia: Japanese, Korean, Chinese and American crews more used to rehearsing for confrontation are today practicing cooperation. In the global battle for hearts and minds, everyone wants to look like they’re doing their best for the grief-stricken relatives. But in a region as contested as the Asia-Pacific, bigger messages must be communicated too: ones that signal the power of militaries to allies and rivals. For the casual consumer of television or online news, however, the relative contributions to the search for MH370 by the different navies and air forces – and hence the messages about those forces’ relative strengths – are being obscured by the differing emphases that countries place on security and public diplomacy.

Media coverage of the operation is constrained by the huge distances involved. Journalists have had to be content with press handouts from public affairs officers or repetitive shots of planes taking off and landing. The desire for fresh pictures to maintain public interest is immense. News demands novelty and Chinese participation in such a high-profile mission is certainly new and appears to symbolize its growing role on the international stage. But by equating the Chinese and American efforts, media coverage has acted as a ‘force multiplier’ for Beijing’s public diplomacy and made Washington’s job in the region more difficult.

There is a vast gap in capabilities between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China’s People’s Liberation Army on the other. In the air the US has deployed the world’s most advanced maritime surveillance aircraft, the P-8 Poseidon and the Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese and South Koreans have sent out their P-3 Orions loaded with radars and other sensors. By contrast, the Chinese have sent a pair of transport planes and a several pairs of binoculars.

The sophistication of American efforts has been hidden behind veils of secrecy. Hints that early leads were provided by sophisticated satellite and surveillance systems have been played down. American public affairs officers tell journalists they can’t discuss the possible involvement of US submarines in the operation, no television pictures of the inside of the P-8 operations rooms have been released to the media. The outside world only sees the different planes taking off from Perth. They all seem the same. On board though, life is very different.


U.S. Pacific Fleet via Compfight

While hand-out images showed the P-3 technicians hunched over data screens , video of the search operation distributed by Chinese Central Television showed crew members taking pictures out of the plane’s windows with smart phones and then enlarging the images on a laptop. Their inexperience in maritime operations was revealed by frequent announcements early in the operation that Chinese crews had spotted debris floating in the ocean. They appeared unaware of just how much flotsam is bobbing around on the world’s waves.

When the P-3s spotted objects they thought might belong to the missing plane they dropped GPS buoys to transmit the location to surface ships. Pictures from March 29 showed Chinese planes also dropping buoys but theirs contained nothing more sophisticated than brightly-coloured dye. When crew members aboard the Jinggangshan amphibious warfare vessel, one of the largest ships in the Chinese navy, discovered one of the GPS buoys they were unable to work out whose it was or where it came from.

For years we have grown used to accounts of China’s growing maritime power but the search for MH370 has shown there is a considerable difference between ambition and competence. The capabilities on display in the southern Indian Ocean reveal the technology and organisation of the PLA to be decades behind that of the US and its allies. As Gary Li, Senior Analyst of IHS Maritime in Beijing told me when I was researching my book on the South China Sea, “Every single new bit of kit that the navy adds, makes it look a little closer to a modern navy. But that doesn’t mean it is a modern navy.”

140317-N-XY761-055 U.S. Pacific Fleet via Compfight

If China’s deployment has been less than effective in a practical sense, it has been much more successful as a public relations exercise. Audiences back home, vociferously demanding government action have been treated to regular reports about the deployment of seven Chinese naval and coastguard vessels. Chinese reporters have been sending back breathless accounts of intrepid action. On 23 and 24 March they transmitted video and stills of the crew of the Xue Long icebreaker scanning the horizon with binoculars. Similar pictures from other ships were broadcast on 25 March. But at the time they were filmed, none of these ships were in the search area. The Xue Long only reached the suspected crash zone on 26 March. The pictures were ‘faked up’ to make the Chinese military look like they were doing something useful.

What’s more surprising than an authoritarian state exaggerating its own achievements, however, is the way the Chinese news agenda has been incorporated into western media outlets. They portrayed an image of the search effort that, at least in the initial stages, gave Chinese efforts pole position. Pictures of the Xue Long’s pointless horizon-gazing or of divers getting into wetsuits while actually being a long way from the crash site were distributed by the main international news agencies and incorporated in reports by broadcasters around the world.

This happens because of agreements struck in 2010between China Central Television (CCTV) and the two main video agencies: Associated Press Television News (APTN) and Reuters Television. Since January 2011 CCTV has paid the two agencies to transmit its pictures around the world. Almost every broadcaster has an agreement with APTN and/or RTV and receives the CCTV pictures along with the agency’s own. The CCTV pictures are clearly identified as such and the agencies make clear they are not responsible for the content. Nonetheless, as in the case for MH370, they allow the Beijing version of events to filter into the mainstream.

As the search continues, international media interest will wane. As the news reports become briefer, the insight will become shallower and the more the inputs of the different militaries will be equated. The relative contributions of the American P-8 Poseidon and the Chinese Ilyushin 76 to the search for MH370 are vastly different, but in the eyes of the viewer they will appear equivalent. China’s growing abilities in public diplomacy are compensating for its deficiencies in military capability. The image of China’s strategic reach is growing stronger, that of America’s real capabilities is being obscured.