China's polar ice-breaker Xue Long has arrived in the southern Indian Ocean to participate in the recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370.

Only a few months ago it was involved in the dramatic rescue of 52 international scientists from the Russian vessel Akademik Shokalskiy after it became stuck in sea ice.

China's decision to send Xue Long to search for MH370, when it was already on its way home after an arduous seven months in Antarctica, gives an insight into the new foreign policy developing under the leadership of the Chinese Communist party general secretary, Xi Jinping.

Xue Long, which means "snow dragon", is the flagship vessel of China's rapidly expanding polar programme. China has four Antarctic research stations, and is planning a fifth. In the Arctic it has a station on Svalbard Island, an observatory in Iceland and semi-permanent facilities in the Arctic Ocean using buoys and weather stations.

In 2015, China will launch a state-of-the art ice vessel that will be used exclusively for oceanic research. The country will also have its own ice-capable plane enabling it to set up an intra-continental flight network for its scientists in Antarctica, and it may also be used in the Arctic.

Xue Long's drawn-out rescue of the passengers of the Akademik Shokalskiy resulted in a rush of positive publicity for China's polar programme. Unlike Australia, which co-ordinated the Akademik Shokalskiy rescue and had been highly critical of the expedition, China has not released information about the cost of its assistance nor asked the scientists to repay the costs.

China's activities in the Arctic and Antarctic suffer from an image problem in the international media, amid questions about China's long-term polar agenda and how it may affect the interests of other established players.

The glowing coverage Xue Long's efforts garnered was given a very high profile in the mainland Chinese media. It was noted as a successful antidote to what Chinese scholars dismiss as "China threat" rhetoric on China's intentions in the Arctic and Antarctic. It also showcased China as Xi Jinping would like it to be seen: a proactive, responsible, constructive, and peaceful contributor to the global order.

As it happened, not long after Xue Long's rescue of the Akademik Shokalskiy, Xi announced his new foreign policy strategy for China: fenfa you wei, or "be proactive".

On board Xue Long is useful equipment for conducting marine surveys in deep waters, such as remote-controlled submersibles, which will assist in attempts to recover the airliner. Its assistance is another propaganda coup for the Chinese polar programme, as well as a subtle reminder of China's will to demonstrate its growing international role and presence.

This article first appeared on The Guardian.