By Bill Hayton
The search for the missing Malaysian airliner has demonstrated the capabilities gap between China, on one side, and the United States and its allies in the Asia Pacific, on the other, but also China’s increasingly sophisticated public diplomacy.
For the past several weeks, an unprecedented military coalition has been operating off the coast of western Australia, including Chinese, Japanese, South Korean, and U.S. crews. In the global battle for hearts and minds, every country wants to look like it is doing its best for grief-stricken neighbors.
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 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 has been constrained by geography. Journalists have to be content with press handouts from public affairs officers or repetitive shots of planes taking off and landing, while the desire for fresh pictures to maintain public interest is immense. Chinese participation in such a high-profile mission is certainly new and appears for many to symbolize its growing role on the international stage. But by equating Chinese and U.S. efforts, media coverage has acted as a “force multiplier” for Beijing’s public diplomacy, indirectly making 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 (PLA) on the other. In the air, the United States 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 several pairs of binoculars.
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 29showed Chinese planes also dropping buoys, but theirs contained nothing more sophisticated than brightly-colored 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.
While hand-out images showed the P-8 technicians hunched over data screens, video of the search operation distributed by Chinese Central Television showed crew members taking pictures out of a 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, which turned out to be false leads.
The search for MH370 shows there is a considerable difference between ambition and competence of the Chinese Navy. 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.”
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 were treated to regular reports about the deployment of seven Chinese naval and coast guard vessels. Chinese reporters sent back breathless accounts of intrepid action.
On March 23 and 24, they transmitted a video and stills of the crew of the Xue Long icebreaker scanning the horizon with binoculars. Similar pictures from other ships were broadcast on March 25. 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 March 26.
What is more surprising than the Chinese government’s exaggerating its own achievements, however, is the way the Chinese news agenda has been incorporated into western media outlets. 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 2010 between 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 Beijing’s version of events to filter into the mainstream.
As the search continues, international media interest will wane. As news reports become briefer, the insight will become shallower and the more the inputs of different militaries will be equated. The relative contributions of the U.S. P-8 Poseidon and Chinese Ilyushin 76 to the search for MH370 are vastly different, but in the eyes of viewers they may appear equivalent. China’s growing abilities in public diplomacy are beginning to compensate for its deficiencies in military capability. While the image of China’s strategic reach is growing stronger, that of America’s real capabilities is being obscured.