MH370: the geopolitical dimension — a list of events and angles

by Chris Zappone

The drama of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has involved the same Asian nations whose relations have grown increasingly tense over the past few years. While it’s impossible to say how the dynamics of the search for the flight will affect the region, if nothing else the event has given a scenario to observe these countries in action in a fluid situation with no clear ending. It is also a peaceful encounter of the various military forces, which is probably being keenly watched on all sides. A couple observations.

1) The fact that the plane went missing on a trip over the South China Sea shows that for all the territorial disputes in the region, no one country can claim effective control.

As American University political scientist Jessica Trisko Darden wrote: (from the Monkey Cage blog)

Flight MH370 demonstrates that competing territorial claims in these areas are not backed up by the ability to exercise control of these waters effectively, even by China.

In as much as the search operation in the South China Sea was a display of who is in charge – it’s clear no one single power is. Instead, authority overlaps in places and is non-existent in others.

2) Reuters reports Australians crew members are flying on Chinese search flights from Perth, Western Australia, possibly to aid in air-to-ground communication, following an incident earlier in China’s contributions to the search efforts.

Air search crews told Reuters that Australian personnel were flying with the Chinese on their sorties. It was not clear if that was for security reasons or to assist with communications after the first Chinese aircraft to fly into Perth landed at the wrong airport last weekend.

3) Chinese and Japanese military personnel attended a lunch hosted by the Royal Australian Air Force at Perth’s RAAF Base Pearce.

“It was very amiable and relaxed, there was no tension whatsoever, it was all friendly – all very professional,” the source told Reuters under condition of anonymity because the person was unauthorized to speak to the media.

4) There was an outburst of frustration by Chinese media in Perth, Australia when they were prevented from joining a pool arrangement to access the Australian Maritime Safety Authority’s Rescue Coordination Centre.

5) China’s planes military planes landed in Australia to conduct the maritime search, only weeks after three Chinese navy ships sailed unannounced into waters north of Australia “changing” Australia’s strategic environment. Nonetheless, there have been direct military-to-military relations between China and Australia’s navies for years.

6) The gathering of search planes in Perth would obviously be a source deep interest by the competing powers. As Reuters notes:

The level of military co-operation between a grouping of countries that contains several traditional antagonists has been unprecedented. But as the wary allies focus on solving this mystery, they are keenly aware of the boundaries of co-operation – diplomatic or military.

“When they are out there and the United States is using its sensors, you can be absolutely sure that the Chinese are recording all of that and are analysing how it’s done because that’s very useful in understanding how the P8s work,” David Brewster, a visiting fellow at the Strategic Defence and Studies Center at the Australian National University, told Reuters.

The Poseidon, an anti-submarine warfare and electronic signals interception plane manufactured by Boeing Co, is the most advanced of its type. Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea all operate an earlier model, the P3 Orion, while China has the larger Russian-made Ilyushin.

7) The US has had a continual presence in the search efforts, either through direct participation in the search flights. Much like the US’s quick response to Tyhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in November 2013, lots of US credibility in Asia is on the line. The motivation for the US in the MH370 search is for Washington to show its continued role and relevance in the Indo-Pacific region, which supports the broader US Pivot to Asia. Amid the understandably sharp words from China for Malaysia over Kuala Lumpur’s handling of the matter, Malaysia has more comfortably turned to the US for help with the investigation.

8) Earlier, India, however, denied a request by China to send four of its warships into India’s Bay of Bengal waters. From the NYTimes quoting the Press Trust of India:

The report said that the officials had raised objections on the grounds that Indian military assets in the area “are mainly to guard against China, and these could get exposed if the Chinese warships are allowed in.” China was told that the Indian Navy and Air Force were already conducting a search and did not need outside help.

9) Despite the cooperation among rivals, there has been a substantial amount of reluctance to display capabilities in too much detail, lest that information sharing comes back to haunt the nations involved. Countries like China and the US are thought to have dumbed down their satellite image quality to obscure their true ability to adversaries. Also, the delay in radar information from other countries, such as Thailand, suggests the countries worry about revealing weakness in their coverage.

10) Japan dispatched a search plane to Australia in keeping with Japan’s National Security Strategy – announced in December – which emphasizes the policy of “‘proactive contribution to peace‘ based on the principle of international cooperation.” Basically, Japan wants to show again, that it is a team player willing to invest in multilateral efforts such as peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance. This continues to place Japan in the corner of a Western, rules-based order, as the Asian regional political environment shifts rapidly. This should be seen in contrast to the troubling displays of nationalism from politicians close to the Abe government.

11) There is anger between China and Malaysia over the handling of the investigation. Both the Chinese government and the affected families are upset at Malaysia, triggering a domestic backlash in Malaysia against Beijing. Yet the government of Malaysia has been more measured in its response.

As background, bear in mind that that territorial disputes between the nations have been flaring recently. In March and April 2013, a flotilla of Chinese naval ships visited the James Shoal, only 80 km from Malaysia and conducted oath-taking ceremonies to “defend the South China Sea” which China claims in its entirety. It happened again in January 2014.

Malaysia has been trying to downplay the incidents, not wanting to draw attention to the challenge. But recently Malaysia has been talking with fellow Southeast Asian nations the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam “to coordinate a joint approach on the dispute” on the issue of territory disputes with China, writes Prashanth Parameswaran at the Jamestown Foundation.

But Malaysia, the first Asian nations to normalize relations with China in 1974, is well aware of China’s growing economic power. Kuala Lumpur wants to avoid damaging ties with China for the long-term good of Malaysia. From the New York Times:

The pro-establishment New Straits Times weighed in with an editorial on Thursday noting that China had nuclear weapons and the world’s largest standing army in addition to the world’s second-largest economy after the United States, and concluded that, “In short, China is a friend not to be antagonized.”

12) The families of Chinese passengers see this incident through the prism of a conspiracy of power. This has obviously been made worse by the handling by the Malaysians. The families also live in a society where cynicism of the government’s statements is the default mode. The anger from Chinese families shows the kind of conspiratorial thinking that is normal inside China – which colors views of foreign countries actions and motives by Chinese citizens. The notion of conspiracy is important for understanding how conflicted the nations of Asia are in their view of each other – and this has real geopolitical implication in bigger matters such as territorial disputes and rivalries.

Having said that: this case of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 remains the biggest aviation mystery since the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.

13) The search’s scope has been described by an Australian general this way. “We’re not searching for a needle in a haystack. We’re still trying to define where the haystack is.” An effort so broad as this one ensures that if one country stands out as instrumental in unlocking the mystery, there may be a gain for its reputation in the region. If the Chinese emerge as the country taking care of business, they can better argue they are the legitimate rising power of Asia. If the US makes the difference, they will be able to demonstrate the endurance of their existing leadership role. Any other country would be able to portray itself as a more capable, more essential power in the region.