BEIJING – In June 2012, China reveled in a major scientific achievement: The nation’s first manned deep-sea submersible, the Jiaolong, had dived more than 4.3 miles into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. The feat, state-run media said, put China among the elite ranks of such deep-sea-faring countries as the United States, France and Japan.
Equipped with sonar equipment and two mechanical arms that can lift as much as 220 pounds, the submersible is just the kind of vehicle that might prove useful in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which investigators now believe is resting 2.8 miles beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean. Of the jet’s 239 passengers and crew members, 153 were Chinese.
But while China has launched itself into the search effort with gusto – it focused its satellites to search for debris, scrambled ships and dispatched airplanes – the effort has thrown an awkward light on the gap between the country’s high-tech aspirations and its limitations.
China hasn’t offered the Jiaolong, and the Australia-based search team hasn’t asked, leaving the lead role to a U.S.-built robot sub, the Bluefin-21.
“We are frustrated that we have this great vehicle and it’s not being deployed on this important mission,” said Cui Weicheng, who helped design the Jiaolong and was aboard the vessel on several missions.
Then again, Cui acknowledged, Chinese officials might be worried about getting the submersible to the search area. Its mother ship, the Facing the Red Sun No. 9, built in 1978, has had engine problems and is unreliable.
“On its last mission, from June to September 2013, the mother ship broke down many times,” Cui said. “It needed many repairs. … I think that’s why the Chinese government may be hesitating to send it.”
Forty days into the quest to locate the Boeing 777, it’s been American, Australian and British equipment and vessels that have turned up what investigators have called the most promising leads. Meanwhile, officials in other countries have chafed about China getting in over its head, rushing to release technical findings that proved to be false leads.
“We cannot deny that the United States has much more advanced technology in this regard,” said Xu Guangyu, a retired military officer who is a consultant with the Beijing-based China Arms Control and Disarmament Association. “The U.S. satellite system is much better, as is their ability to analyze very complicated data. These are things that we have to learn from the United States.”
China had grabbed headlines – and caught Australian search coordinators off guard – when state-run CCTV announced that China’s Haixun 01 search vessel might have picked up acoustic transmissions from the jet’s data recorders. It was the first report of any such “pings.”
Little more was said about the purported pings until this week, when Angus Houston, the retired Australian air chief marshal who has been coordinating the search efforts from Perth, said the Chinese data had been “analyzed and discounted as a credible transmission.”