Maritime Matters

Search and Rescue at Sea: Challenges and Chinese Capabilities

07 Apr, 2014    ·   4374

Dr Vijay Sakhuja analyses the emerging challenges and the capabilities of the PLA Navy

The international search and rescue effort to locate the voice and data recorder referred as the ‘black box’, and debris of the Malaysian Airlines MH 370 have continued relentlessly for nearly four weeks now. The satellite data provided by the British company and inputs from the US Transportation Safety Board and the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch indicated that MH 370 was last known to have been somewhere in the Indian Ocean. This led the Malaysian Prime Minister to announce that ‘MH 370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean’. 

Soon after the announcement of the disappearance of the MH 370, nearly two dozen countries dispatched their naval and coast guard ships and aircraft to South China Sea to locate the aircraft. Currently, 14 aircraft,  nearly a dozen  ships and one nuclear submarine from Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, United Kingdom and the United States are deployed in the southern Indian Ocean for air-sea search and are scouring nearly 223,000 square nautical miles to locate the debris and the ‘black box’ of the aircraft. 

The search and rescue aircraft are staged from Perth in Australia and according to the Australian navy chief, “We are not searching for a needle in a haystack but still trying to define where the haystack is.” It is also important to point out that the southern Indian Ocean is a very inhospitable and experiences bad weather, poor visibility, etc. The sailors refer to it as the ‘Roaring Forties’ 

It was quite natural for China to dispatch its naval and maritime assets for search and rescue since majority of the 217 passengers onboard the MH 370 were Chinese. Soon after the incident, China deployed 14 ships, six marine police ships, and two aircraft in the South China Sea. This included destroyer Haikou, amphibious landing ship Jinggangshan which has a big flight deck and is capable of carrying several helicopters, and the amphibious assault ship Kunlunshan.
Currently, there are seven Chinese ships deployed west of Perth in the Southern Indian Ocean.  The Jinggangshan has been on deployment for over three weeks now and has clocked over 7,500 nautical miles. The other ships of the PLA Navy include Dong Hai Jiu, China’s largest patrol ship Hai Xun and Nan Hai Jiu. The PLA Navy has also redeployed its Task Force 525 from the Gulf of Aden to south of Australia’s Christmas Island. Meanwhile, China has marshaled the services of its icebreaker Xue Long (Snow Dragon), which was in the Antarctica a few months ago and was in the news for the rescue of the Russian icebreaker Akademik Shokalskiy, is operating in the southern Indian Ocean.  

As far as air and space assets are concerned, two Chinese IL-76 planes are deployed from Perth and they carry out regular air searches. Further, a number of Chinese satellites have supported search operations and Gaofen-1 has beamed high-resolution images that have been ‘valuable and helpful in narrowing down the search area’. 

Although the search and rescue operations have showcased China’s maritime capability, it has also exposed several limitations. Does China lacks technology to carry out deep sea underwater operations? Only a few Chinese ships possess proper equipment and can conduct deep sea rescue. There is limited ‘sea-probing equipment and telecommunications’ available with the PLA Navy.  Likewise, the IL-76 is a transport plane and lacks necessary equipment to conduct sub-surface operations. Also, Chinese satellites did not receive any signals from MH 370 unlike the western satellites. Interestingly, it has been noted that the Chinese media relied on Western sources and shared broken news with the Chinese public and for that China ‘urgently needs to boost its international soft power’. 

The tragic loss of MH 370 is a humanitarian issue and precious lives have been lost. Countries have set aside rivalries and differences and joined international efforts to search the missing plane. For instance, Vietnam allowed two PLA Navy ships to enter its waters and conduct search and rescue operations. This is a great gesture from Vietnam with whom China has consistently adopted an assertive stance. Likewise, the US and the historical foe Japan have set aside the diplomatic and military sensitivities, and are cooperating with the Chinese for rescue operations.  
It is hoped that the unfortunate MH 370 incident would pave the way for future cooperation among the Asia Pacific countries that would be critically required to address similar challenges arising from natural calamities and disasters.  Also, saber rattling by China against the claimants over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea may prove to be counterproductive; after all there is lot more beyond nationalism and sovereignty.