BEIJING >> China has not held back in forcing the pace of the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It has deployed 21 satellites and a flotilla of naval ships. It has dispatched investigators to Malaysia, run background checks on the Chinese passengers, and scoured radar images of its vast western regions. Every day it has cajoled, chided and criticized Malaysian officials.
And still it has come up empty-handed. Two weeks after the plane vanished on an overnight flight to Beijing, no trace of the Boeing 777 jet or the 239 people on board, two-thirds of whom are Chinese, has been found.
The painful process of working with Malaysia in searching for the airplane and investigating what went wrong in the early hours of March 8 has revealed the limits of China’s power, influence and technological and military might in the region, despite its rapid rise as a rival to the United States and American strategic dominance of the Western Pacific.
Within China, anguished relatives and friends of the passengers and their many sympathizers are pressing hard for answers, but the government finds itself helpless as Malaysia takes the lead in the search and investigation efforts, which is consistent with international norms on air disasters.
Malaysia has been keeping other nations, including China, at a distance, to the frustration of officials here, according to political observers. That tension is reflected in the frequent condemnations of Malaysia that have appeared in the Chinese state news media. China is out of its comfort zone, no longer in the position of strength from which it usually deals with smaller Asian nations, including Malaysia.
The two countries have for decades maintained strong economic ties, and Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, promised closer economic and military cooperation on a visit to Malaysia in October. At the same time, China has not been shy about pressing Malaysia on a range of delicate issues – in January, it sent a naval patrol to a reef in the South China Sea that is claimed by Malaysia; in 2012, it welcomed Malaysia’s deportation of six ethnic Uighurs who had fled from China.
Now, Chinese officials find themselves desperately prodding Malaysia to share information, to allow China a hand in the investigation and to placate the irate Chinese families who demand answers daily. "If you don’t push them, they won’t move," Zhu Zhenming, a scholar of Southeast Asia at the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, said about the Malaysian authorities. "It’s mostly to do with their administrative management capabilities, but also their culture."
He added that Malaysia was "too lacking" when it came to "dealing with disaster management" – "not because they don’t want to do it, but because they cannot."
That sense of frustration, and perhaps condescension, has come through even in official Chinese remarks that were intended to be diplomatic. On Tuesday, Huang Huikang, the Chinese ambassador to Malaysia, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, that "the Malaysian government has insufficient capabilities, technologies and experience in responding to the MH370 incident, but they did their best."
In some ways, the complaints reinforce a belief that many Chinese have long held: that their political culture is superior to those of Southeast Asian nations. In that worldview, Southeast Asia has throughout history been a less-developed region that looked up to China and tried to both appease and imitate it.
Malaysia, a country dominated by an ethnic Malay, mostly Muslim population with a significant ethnic Chinese minority, is no exception, in the eyes of many Chinese. The plane crisis is strengthening those prejudices, analysts say.
"The image of the Malaysian government has dropped in the eyes of the Chinese government and the Chinese people," said Bo Zhiyue, a scholar of Chinese politics at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore. "Compared to the Malaysian government, the Chinese government is quicker and more responsive and so forth." He said the episode had reinforced the view among Chinese that their system "is not inferior to other systems, and is in some ways superior to other systems in its efficiency."
Like China, Malaysia has been governed by the same political party for decades, but there are important differences. Malaysia has robust opposition parties, and unlike many of its neighbors, its military has not played a major role in domestic politics. That means that Malaysian commanders have less frequent contact with civilian leaders than their counterparts in some other Asian nations, including China, where Xi, chief of the Communist Party, directs the military.
Some political analysts say that if the Malaysian military had closer ties to civilian officials, there might have been earlier agreement on how to interpret and share military radar data that tracked an aircraft, now believed to be Flight 370, flying westward to the Indian Ocean rather than going down near its original course across the Gulf of Thailand, where search efforts were focused in the first days after it disappeared. The late announcement of the radar data embarrassed Malaysia and angered many other nations.
"In Malaysia, the system is much more decentralized," Bo said. "The military has their own domain."
Huang, the Chinese ambassador, said Tuesday that Malaysia needed to be much more open with the information it had. That night, Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, published a commentary that said: "Due to the lack of transparency, massive efforts have been squandered and numerous rumors have been swirling, repeatedly racking the nerves of the waiting families. Therefore, there is no excuse for repeating the same mistakes."
Chinese officials are under intense pressure to solve the mystery of Flight 370 in part because of the timing of its disappearance, just one week after attackers went on a knifing rampage in a train station in southwest China, killing 29 people and injuring nearly 150. Chinese officials said that the rampage was a terrorist act and that the attackers appeared to have come from Xinjiang, the western province where violence has been mounting between ethnic Uighurs and the ruling ethnic Han.
Many people initially thought that Flight 370’s disappearance was another act of terrorism, possibly committed by Uighurs, though U.S. officials say they believe terrorists are probably not involved. China’s own investigation of its citizens on the plane found that none had any ties to militancy, including an ethnic Uighur who was on board.
"It’s a little sensitive, and it seems a little embarrassing," he said. "They need to make an extra effort to make it look like they’re taking it seriously and commit resources to find an answer to the problem."
Chinese propaganda officials have ordered domestic news organizations to not independently analyze or comment on the flight, and to ensure that their coverage is consistent with material provided by the Chinese government, according to China Digital Times, an organization in Berkeley, Calif., that tracks the Chinese news media.
Chinese military officials have become intensely focused on the missing plane, said one Western official here who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomatic issues involved. "These guys in the military are drilling themselves into the ground," the official said. "They’re not going home at night. They want information, information, information. But there’s nothing they can get."
On Wednesday afternoon, Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, called a Malaysian commander and said that as long as there was a glimmer of hope, everyone had to put in 100 percent effort, according to an announcement on the Chinese Defense Ministry’s website. Fang added that the Malaysian military could give more assistance to the Chinese military in the search efforts, the announcement said.
The feeling of helplessness in China was also reflected at the Malaysian government news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, when Chinese relatives of missing passengers broke into the room and unfurled banners demanding action. Guards dragged them away, but not before journalists inside recorded their cries of anguish. "Where is my son?" a woman in a pink blouse screamed. "Why are you not giving me answers?"