World / Opinion

China displays soft power in MH370 search

By Bai Ping (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-19 07:32

As the frustrating, until now futile search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 wears on, some people may be wondering: How long will China continue its big and costly operation in the Indian Ocean?

China has contributed nine warships and civilian vessels and six aircraft to the search mission fraught with twists and letdowns. It has already cost many millions of yuan according to some unofficial estimates. The Chinese navy's announcement early this week to cancel an international fleet review, partly because of the deployment of some of its most advanced hardware in the Indian Ocean, has underscored the onerousness of its commitments.

Although search teams have seen little light at the end of the tunnel and the disappearance of the plane remains a mystery, China has shown no sign of relenting. Its top leaders have repeatedly pledged to make greater efforts and work with other countries to find the plane.

Some cynics may interpret China's resolve as a mere show of its growing economic strength and rising naval capabilities. But many people see in China a nation that has made the moral decision to take care of its citizens wherever they may be. It's the power of attraction - not economic or military muscle - that captures people's hearts and that is what China desires to increase.

For years, China has been exploring ways of translating potential sources of its soft power into real influence with some success. Major drives of public relations include hosting the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, opening Confucius institutes across the world and the "relaunching" of the State media to provide more information about the country.

But foreign countries' perception about China has more or less remained "one-sided", for they tend to associate its success on multiple fronts with the "China threat" theory or its problems with the "China collapse" theory, according to officials and experts concerned about the nation's image.

While some in China still believe negative foreign views about China can be explained away by providing more information, many have realized that foreigners will continue to rely on their own media which reconstruct the image of China through a different lens.

Harvard University's Joseph Nye, who coined the term soft power, has described it as a type of currency different from force or payoffs to engage in cooperation, or an attraction to shared values and the justness and duty of contributing to the achievement of those values. In laymen's language, the values and tenets associated with soft power could probably boil down to the protection of citizens' rights, democracy and the rule of law, with safeguarding of people's interests being at the core.

The search for the lost plane with 239 people on board, including 154 Chinese passengers, is a good opportunity for China to showcase its people-first philosophy of governance. Its efforts have won accolades from home and abroad, which have ranged from being "determined and forceful" in its response to taking "the high moral ground" to being a "responsible superpower".

This is not the first time China is carrying out a large operation to help its citizens in trouble overseas. In 2011, it evacuated more than 35,800 of its nationals from Libya during the political crisis in that country. The operation, according to Chinese media reports, involved 91 domestic chartered flights, 12 military flights, five cargo ferries, one escort ship, 35 foreign chartered flights, 11 trips by foreign passenger liners and some 100 bus runs.

Yet the ongoing multinational search for MH370, arguably one of the largest in aviation history, has attracted much more global attention because of the potential loss of many human lives, daunting technical challenges and an increasingly intricate international situation.

However long and costly the mission may be, China will continue to lead it full throttle. It must.

The writer is editor-at-large of China Daily. E-mail:

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