Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
In the daunting search for the missing Malaysia Airlines passenger jet MH370
, the contribution of naval forces by China and the US has aroused enormous attention from strategists.
Though there is no evidence that the amphibious dock landing ship Jinggangshan and the missile frigate Mianyang dispatched by China's PLA Navy have worked in concert with the two destroyers, the USS Kidd and the USS Pinckney sent by the US Navy's Seventh Fleet, Chinese and US naval forces comprise the most important part of the search and rescue operation.
For a long time, the word "cooperation" has rarely been applied to the naval forces of the two countries. China's increasingly powerful naval force over the South China Sea has frequently been interpreted as a challenge to US military might, which will likely trigger an inevitable conflict with its navy.
And the US deployment of its naval fleet is top on the agenda of the Pentagon's policy of "rebalancing" in the Asia-Pacific region. The US Navy will deploy 60 percent of its assets to the Pacific and raise the number of ships from around 50 to 65 by 2020.
What consequences will the growing strength of the Chinese navy and the growing military presence of the US navy lead to? This is not the only key in whether Beijing and Washington can smoothly develop a new type of great power relationship but is also critical to the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region in the future.
Online photos displaying Chinese and US warships and vessels searching for signs of the vanishing plane over the South China Sea show the power of their naval forces, but more importantly, sketch the contours of their bilateral coordination and cooperation in this strategically important region.
Whether the two naval forces will cooperate with each other and how they will conduct such joint efforts in the South China Sea will determine the peace and stability in the region.
The Malaysia Airlines incident has once again brought up the idea that stakeholders in the South China Sea, in particular Beijing and Washington, should further improve joint search and rescue mechanisms and carry out more drills in this connection. Serving as a starting point of Sino-US naval cooperation in the Pacific, such maneuvers are in consistency with the interests of all regional states.
When the Seventh Fleet dispatched the USS Pinckney, they declared the guided-missile destroyer was coming to "assist in the search efforts" for the missing flight.
The US Navy has not clarified exactly who they are offering the assistance to, but they used the word "assist" in an obvious bid to prevent public opinion from any military association. Meanwhile, they also tried to relieve the concerns of regional stakeholders, including China, about their military presence in the South China Sea.
Sino-US communication is vital for any large-scale cooperation in the South China Sea. If the naval forces of the two powers can engage in exchanges and gradually establish a joint search and rescue mechanism, there is a high likelihood that other countries will also participate.
The tragic event has happened during the nascent stage of Sino-US naval communication, which makes the practical role of communication in regional security and stability all the more prominent.
Last year, Chinese and the US military held the first joint drill on humanitarian aid and disaster relief in Hawaii. The troops mainly focused on searching for life and providing emergency assistance in airspace for a third country struck by a violent earthquake.
And China will send troops to participate in the US-led Pacific Rim military exercise this year at the invitation of Washington.
Such preliminary steps will do little to eliminate strategic mistrust between the two powers in the world. A joint search and rescue operation will neither likely change the overall architecture of the South China Sea. But the more importance Beijing and Washington attach to cooperation and the more investment they put in exchanges, the less the risks of friction and conflicts will be. The author is a senior editor with People's Daily. He is now stationed in Brazil. firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @dinggangchina