Of the 227 passengers aboard the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared into the skies Friday, 153 were Chinese. The country has since been absorbed in trying to figure out what happened to the craft, while family members desperately try to gain information about their loved ones.
At the same time, other interests in China have begun to leverage the crisis for their own ends.
The Chinese military, for example, appears to have moved swiftly to capitalize on the crisis. After two warships were sent to the area in which the plane may have gone down, the prominent Adm. Yin Zhuo suggested that it would be a good idea for China to build military bases in disputed areas of the South China Sea—just in case there are other rescue missions that China needs to help out with.
Adding to the drama, a letter, supposedly from a Uyghur Muslim taking responsibility for downing the plane, appeared online. But after initially causing a stir it was discredited as an apparent forgery, perhaps seeking to further stir up ethnic tensions after the recent massacre in Kunming that was held to have been conducted by a “violent terrorist gang.”
As hours have turned into days without any sign of the plane, the sadness of families has morphed into anger. More than 10 family members of victims went to the Malaysian Embassy in Beijing Sunday, demanding to know what happened. They asked questions like, “What have the Malaysian authorities been doing in the last 48 hours? With technology so advanced these days, how could a plane just vanish from radar midflight? And how long is this going to take?”
At a press conference Sunday morning at the Metropark Lido Hotel in Beijing, representatives with Malaysian Airlines told family members to be prepared for the worst. According to the Legal Evening News, some individuals burst into tears, while others fainted from the grief. Medical personnel rushed to their aid.
Military on the Move
One of the immediate actions taken by the Chinese was to dispatch two warships—an amphibious lander and a guided missile frigate—to assist in the search efforts. These were sent from the port in Zhanjiang City, in southern China’s Guangdong Province.
After the ships left, Adm. Yin Zhuo, in the People’s Liberation Army navy, suggested in the Chinese press that China ought to construct harbors and ports in the Spratly Islands, which could act as operating bases for the PLA. The bases would make rescue operations easier in the South China Sea, according to a summary of his remarks published in Global Times, a state-run nationalist newspaper. He is also calling for the Chinese regime to build an airfield in the disputed region.
The Spratly Islands, however, are a highly disputed set of land features in the South China Sea. Six countries have claims and various levels of military occupation on some of the islands, and building an airstrip and landing base there would likely exacerbate tensions.
If China were to build the new PLA operating bases in the Spratly Islands, Yin said, the Chinese regime could then use its military base in Sanya, Hainan as a headquarters for the airfield, ports, and harbors in the disputed area—in case they ever need to help send rescue ships to the South China Sea in the future.
The push for expanded operations in this area fits with known Chinese strategy for increasing influence and control over disputed territories.
China uses what its Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong describes as a “cabbage strategy.” He outlined the strategy in a May 2013 interview on a Chinese state-run television network, the transcript of which was published by China Daily Mail.
Zhang said that to take disputed territory, China sends fishing ships into the area, followed by marine surveillance ships to conduct patrols, and then finally warships. “The island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage … a cabbage strategy has taken shape.”
“For many things, we have to grab the right timing to do them,” he added.
The need for China to have an increased presence in the Spratly Islands just for rescue operations is an unusual proposal, because there is already a strong naval contingent in and around the Spratly Islands. The islands, islets, and reefs are occupied by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Taiwan has a coast guard base on Taiping Island, the largest of the Spratly Islands, complete with an airstrip. China has a signals intelligence base on Subi Reef. There are similar bases and ports throughout the area.
A Fake Letter
One of the more promising threads to have emerged from the scant information available at present about the downing of the craft related to two individuals traveling on stolen passports, seated next to one another. They bought their tickets together, and would have needed to pass for an Italian and an Austrian (the nationalities to whom the stolen documents belonged.)
This by itself proved nothing, but in China it was a steppingstone to a broader theme. After a recent knife rampage in the southern city of Kunming, purported to have been carried out by terrorists who support secession in the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang, there is a tendency to blame any terrorist acts on Uyghur Muslims—the Turkic-speaking people native to that region.
China Central Television, the state broadcaster, blurred the name of a single passenger on the flight manifest. He was later shown to be Memetjan Abra, a Uyghur painter from Xinjiang.
Then a letter appeared online, appearing to claim responsibility for the downing of the Malaysian plane. The “Announcement and Explanation of the Malaysian Flight MH370 Incident,” as it was titled, said that the plane was taken down as “a response to the Chinese government’s cruel persecution of people, including the Uyghurs.” The Malaysian government was 40 percent responsible, while the Chinese shouldered 60 percent of the blame, it said.
But some telltale signs about the letter—a complete absence of information on how the plane was allegedly hijacked, the email server it came from, and a signature-line that reinforced China’s rule over Xinjiang, rather than that of the subsumed East Turkestan—seemed to seal the impression that it was a mere forgery.
The involvement of terrorists—whether supporting Xinjiang independence or some other kind—has not been ruled out however: the plane disappeared from civilian contact in clear weather, and in what must have been a sudden incident. No one on land received a distress signal.