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MH370: building better relations with China

By Peter Coates - posted Friday, 28 March 2014

The likely crash of MH370 into the Southern Indian Ocean raises a range of matters that will influence Australia's relations with China for years. One aspect is the presence of substantial numbers of Chinese military aircraft and warships utilising Australian military bases in Western Australia to search for MH370. Another matter is the likely entry into Perth of large numbers of grieving relatives of Chinese passengers who died in MH370. These matters have and will involve deep negotiations between Australia and China at the peak leadership, military, legal and diplomatic-consular level.

It is unusual for so many Chinese military assets to be present in Australia and operating off our coast. These aircraft and ships are of course being used for a humanitarian, soft power purposes, but as China is seen as a possible strategic problem their presence seems a little unreal. A Chinese destroyer was present at the International Fleet Review, Sydney Harbour, October 2013. However this is not the same as three or more large Chinese warships and an icebreaker operating off Western Australia for months, at least.

Two large Chinese Ilyushin transport aircraft are also involved in the search. They are operating from RAAF Pearce Air Force Base. Our airmen are unused to the constant presence of Chinese pilots and ground crew on an Australian base. In comments that might be amusing if the situation wasn't so tragic the Chinese news agency Xinhua reported from Perth, March 22, 2014: "Two highly-anticipated Chinese Air Force planes arrived Saturday …to drive the ongoing search …[The] Chinese IL-76 will be a welcome relief to the authorities here as the challenges of the task at hand begin to overwhelm available resources…The IL-76, emblazoned with a rich-red Chinese flag as well as a sky-blue hull and a white underbelly, created a rare ripple of enthusiasm across the airbase that is currently home to a large international press corp."


The likely entry into Perth of large numbers of grieving relatives, of Chinese passengers of MH370, may sadly present prolonged and unpredictable situations. Most of the relatives speak no English and have never been outside China. The Chinese tradition of recovering the bodies of next-of-kin is strong.

The anger of the relatives of Chinese MH370 passengers has been directed against the Malaysian government. Might this anger be directed against Australia as the inevitably long-term search and recovery operation continues out of Australia? Whatever happens any detection and recovery of the MH370 aircraft and of bodies (which is even more difficult) may take years. Some relatives in their grief expect authorities to rapidly know the answers when nothing can be detected and retrieved quickly. This is in a Southern Indian Ocean search area of thousands of square kilometres, where major parts of MH370 may be thousands of metres down on the sea floor.

Relatives' anger has escalated to demonstrations in Beijing itself – a city where only authorised demonstrations are permitted. The Washington Post has reported close-in official control of relatives' demonstrations against the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing. One Chinese government objective appears to be the minimisation of any possibility that relatives will blame the Chinese government itself. Prior to a demonstration of grieving relatives a few days ago plain-clothes Chinese government agents reportedly took control. This was achieved by: some concentration of relatives at one hotel; providing buses; supplying protest signs and T-shirts with authorised slogans aimed at Malaysia; close liaison with uniformed police; and, lecturing relatives on how to protest in an authorised and limited way.

As the closest landfall for MH370's recovery Australia may also become a type of witness in legal-political proceedings. Compensation and blame is a big issue. Chicago based Ribbeck Law has reportedly already filed a petition at the Cook County, Illinois Circuit Court against the Boeing corporation and Malaysian Airlines. Other lawsuits are likely. The US has provided invaluable satellite and naval support but, no doubt conspiracy theorists are developing pretexts to blame America (as in all things) for the disappearance of flight MH370.

Australian authorities in Perth and Canberra are probably liaising with China very closely on ways to avoid, tension, violence and bilateral misunderstandings. This is an extraordinary political, military, technical, humanitarian and legal matter. Australia has rarely worked with the Chinese government so closely. That Australia is working closely with China and that recovery of remains may take years is something relatives will need to understand.

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About the Author

Peter Coates has been writing articles on military, security and international relations issues since 2006. In 2014 he completed a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with a high distinction average. His website is Submarine Matters.

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