Since Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 went missing, there have been moments when the mystery of the plane’s fate has been freighted with geopolitical importance. Obviously, for people in the know, the satellite and search capabilities of the countries involved must have been very instructive for the rival nations. No doubt the US, China, India, Japan, Australia have taken a lot of interest in what each other can sense via satellite and other means.
But there has also been the challenge of the nations trying to achieve a task whose dimensions have been largely unknowable at times. The fact that the search relied on sensitive satellite and radar technology gives the moment a quality of geopolitical competition that has echoes of the historical Cold War. Moreover, there has been a huge, global audience following this event in real time, giving an adventure-like quality to the mystery of the plane’s whereabouts.
It’s worth lingering on what a decisive find of the wreckage, or discovery of the cause of the incident could do for a country’s standing. This is the ultimate soft-power prize.
Families grieve and the Malaysian elite cope with the political fallout but for a lot of the world this event is really about which nation is more capable of finding a solution to a problem whose extact nature is not readily known. It reminds me of early spaceflight efforts in a way – a nation’s narrative is about its ability to succeed in a dealing with an issue whose parameters are unknown, to step into a situation and create the reality through technology and determination.
This is a subtle point – but central to the jockeying for position going on in the Indo-Pacific and more broadly globally. Any country that can prevail and succeed in such a confounding situation will gain in the global public’s eyes.