The geopolitics of missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH 370
The investigation into the disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, flight MH 370, continues and none of the theories, whether leaning towards foul play or malfunction, have yielded any results. All that is certain is that flight MH370 departed Kuala Lumpur with 239 people on board – two thirds of whom Chinese – took off at 00:41 hrs on March 8. Notions that the pilots, or one of the pilots, deliberately disabled the Boeing’s communication systems have not been conclusive; indeed, they have been as inconclusive as all other theories, which, as any internet search will show, include UFO and Bermuda Triangle like plots as well. It is natural and necessary to speculate over what may have happened to MH 370 – this author has his own theory of possible sudden depressurization causing the plane to keep flying with nobody at the controls – nevertheless, only the facts and the evidence will reveal what has become a mystery.
The problem of speculation, however, is that it only raises the hopes of the family members of the passengers and crew of MH 370. The uncertainty and constant barrage of suppositions and assumptions has taken its toll on the families. Furious relatives of the Chinese interrupted a press conference by a minister demanding answers before he was able to utter a word. “They say different things every day. Where is the plane now?” This article does not intend to speculate over that question – there are plenty of others that do that. Rather, there are some actual unintended developments surrounding the missing Boeing. The search has brought together 26 countries, which have been forced to share some security information, manage adverse interests under chaotic coordination in a region full of geopolitical tensions. Regardless of when or even if the fate of MH 370 is revealed, the region will emerge a little different – perhaps better or perhaps worse.
China and its neighbors compete economically with and among each other as well as strategically over sovereignty of the South China Sea. In the midst of the regional tensions, the United States have made the Asia-Pacific a “pivot” of their geostrategic policy. The search for MH 370 has been especially arduous, particularly in the crucial early days, because of the contradictory information resulting from the various states’ reluctance to share information and observations. In the first 24 hours, the search focused on an area between Malaysia and Vietnam. The next day, without explanation, Malaysia announced that the flight might have changed course after about an hour’s flight towards the west, re-directing the search toward Central Asia and the area south of the Indian Ocean. Malaysia revealed that its military radar had identified the aircraft while explaining that no action had been taken because it did not seem “hostile”. Five days later, Thailand has also implicitly recognized a failure in radar recognition on March 8, excusing it by claiming that “the aircraft was not in Thai airspace and was not a threat to Thailand”.
The tensions in the region have kept countries quiet about their capabilities. It seems they are reluctant to disclose the limits of their technology and military capacity. This has made coordination and disclosure difficult. It has also prompted a ‘pot calling the kettle black’ accusation from China. Indeed, the ever cryptic China has slammed Malaysia for its lack of transparency after the disappearance of flight MH370. Beijing’s indignation contrasts heavily with its well documented tendency to obfuscate disasters on its own territory. For instance, after the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, where the collapse of schools had caused the death of thousands of children, activists were asked about the poor quality of school buildings. Those curious citizens were either beaten or arrested. China is definitely one of those countries where curiosity will hurt if not kill the cat.
This small matter has not deterred Chinese Premier Li Keqiang from curtly demanding that his Malaysian counterpart provide information with “punctuality, accuracy and completeness” over MH 370. Chinese state media have even accused Malaysia (a far more democratic and transparent country than the People’s Republic) for their lack of transparency. Yet China has hardly been transparent, entirely excluding even the chance that MH 370 entered its airspace. How could they be so sure?
Beijing’s silence results from the same sensitive geopolitical character that has delayed important details about radar and other detections from being revealed by all the other countries involved in the search. The search operation by military vessels in the South China Sea have been much like a massive military exercise, revealing the strengths, but even more the vulnerabilities, of those same countries’ defense systems.
National self interest has prevailed over the search for MH 370. Malaysia has underlined the importance of outside help in scouring two land and sea corridors equivalent in size to the entire land mass of Australia. Yet, Indonesia was late in granting surveillance clearance to aircraft from Australia, Japan, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia to overfly its territory, blaming the delay on ‘awaiting’ instructions from Kuala Lumpur and ‘protocol’.
MH 370 has uncovered the lack of cooperation and mistrust that exists in the South China Sea region. Many of the countries involved are not used to such close cooperation as required, given the need to share sensitive radar data. One positive development has come from Japan. Even though, there are no Japanese citizens aboard MH370 and despite the tensions with China over the Senkaku/Diayou Islands, Japan was not even asked to join the rescue/search operation. But it has. Japan, the one major NATO power in the region also has the most advanced technology and trained personnel in the entire Asia-Pacific region. Japan’s collaboration may well help to resolve the deadlock in Sino-Japanese relations, or at least bring the two countries to discuss the Islands dispute, which will have evident economic and business repercussions, not the least of which will concern the rare earths market.
Both China and Japan have increased military spending and military naval exercises; the MH 370 incident may be the catalyst for a respite and possible diplomatic overture. Nevertheless, the heavy presence of Chinese ships in the South China Sea, in an area over which it claims sovereignty at the expense of Malaysia may cause tensions to rise in South East Asia, where many countries have grown more concerned about China’s rising power status and ambition. China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner. Perhaps, Malaysia will be seeking more opportunities with its equally concerned neighbors. Or, logic will win the day, as the various countries in the region will start to trust each other more in a greater climate of trust. Either way, MH 370 will have much deeper consequences and effects than the fate of its passengers.