China throws full weight behind search

Last updated 14:37 24/03/2014

Families of some of the Chinese passengers vent their anger against Malaysian officials over missing plane as new satellite image emerges. Paul Chapman reports

Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-76
RUNWAY: One of two Chinese Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft, expected to join the search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in Perth.
Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 search area
GROUND TO COVER: Satellite image made available by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority shows a map of the planned search area for missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.

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With 153 of its citizens on board the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, China has thrown its full weight behind the multi-national search.

But it has come up empty-handed, and the trying process of working with Malaysian authorities in the investigation has revealed the limitations of China's power, influence, and military capability in the region, despite its surging military spend and the perceived threat it poses to the United States strategic dominance in the Asia-Pacific.

Not that you could tell through the China's state-run media coverage.

Alongside generous coverage of President Xi Jinping meeting the Dutch King Willem-Alexander in Amsterdam, state media has been busy talking up Beijing's role in the latest phase of the search, in the Southern Indian Ocean off Australia's west coast.

Reports carried by official news agency Xinhua emphasised that the search had been recalibrated to take into suspected plane debris spotted by Chinese high-definition observation satellite Gaofen-1 last Tuesday.

It expounded on the arrival of two "highly-anticipated" Chinese Air Force planes which could help "precipitate a swift conclusion to the agonising international search".

"With Australian and New Zealand airforce P3 Orions limited by the vast distances and their dependence on infrared imaging, 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 Xinhua report said.

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 report continued.

Among the benefits of the plane were its many windows, allowing a "very good visual search capability".

No mention, then, of the plane landing at the wrong airport on Saturday, underlining the potentially logistical and language difficulties facing complex multi-national search effort.

"They landed at Perth and then they landed here," RAAF Corporal Janine Fabre told Reuters at Base Pearce, a dusty collection of runways and low-slung buildings about 35 kilometres north of Perth.

"We don't know why."

Chinese reports later denied the IL-76 had landed at the wrong airport.

For families, the agonising wait for news has stretched into a third week.

Many are maintaining a vigil at Beijing's Lido Hotel, where daily information updates from Malaysian officials are producing increasingly desperate scenes.

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Police had to intervene on Saturday after infuriated relatives, convinced of a government cover-up, confronted a senior delegation of Malaysian officials after they cut short a morning briefing without answering all questions.

"The Malaysian government is deceiving us," one yelled. "They don't dare to face us. The Malaysian government are the biggest murderers."

On Sunday, media were banned from the day's briefing session, where both sides demanded apologies from each other. Malaysian officials are understood to have proposed conditions on the briefings, including pre-written questions, a ban on media, and beefed-up safety conditions.

"It's all a con, why are they torturing the families like this," one relative, Xu Dengqing, said.

A directive issued by the Central Propaganda Department soon after the plane went missing warned against any reportage that could "incite any discontented sentiment".

None of the ugly scenes, a telling demonstration of the distress family members are experiencing, have been reported in state media.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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