The International Relations of Searching for MH370

“We don’t want Chinese warships sniffing around in the area on the pretext of hunting for the missing jetliner or anti-piracy patrols”[1].

For the last three weeks, the world has been watching with baited breath as the search for Malaysian Airlines flight 370 continues. Officials suspect there are mere days left on the battery of the black box – the flight data recorder, which is the last remaining hope of establishing the events of the 8th of March. Fear and suspense turn into anguish for family members as the chances of finding the missing plane grow slimmer every day. States have offered varying degrees of support in order to aid the search. However, inter-state conflict and rivalry may be getting in the way of a wholly cooperative investigation. On one thing, the whole world can agree – the events of the 8th of March are a tragedy. However, on the means of providing closure to those most affected, states appear to be at a standstill.

Image courtesy of PH3, © 2014, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of PH3, © 2014, some rights reserved

Flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, flight MH370 carried 227 passengers on what should have been a six-hour flight. Barely one hour into the flight, communication with the plane was lost. With passengers from 14 separate countries, it is plain to see why multiple governments have offered assistance and participated in the search efforts. Initial reports suggested that the aircraft crashed in the South China Sea. However, with new data, the search shifted to various regions as the Indian Ocean, stretching as far away as an area near Perth, in Australia. There have been numerous sightings of debris thought to be from the aircraft, however; thus far the search has been fruitless. The search presents inherent difficulties – “there is nothing simple or completely predictable about currents in this corner of the world”[2]. Due to powerful currents, sites that have been previously cleared and searched may hold valuable clues that would help account for the aircraft’s whereabouts. On the 24th of March, the Malaysian Prime Minister declared the aircraft lost, and all passengers and crew on board are presumed dead.

Speculation as to why the aircraft veered so far off course has ranged from suggestions that it was a terrorist attack gone wrong, to a suicide mission undertaken by the pilot. There was also further speculation that two passengers travelling on stolen passports may have hijacked the plane. For the best possible chance of finding the aircraft, states have needed to participate in information sharing on a wide scale. However, this is not without its difficulties. Dozens of countries have been involved in the search, but the largest contributions have come from Malaysia and China due to the clear interest they have in the safety of their citizens aboard the flight. Significant resources have also been expended to the search by Thailand, Australia, India and the United States. When the search moved from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, China requested access to Indian waters surrounding the Andaman Islands for “four warships, including two frigates and a salvage vessel”[3]. However, on the 20th of March, such access was “politely turned down”[4], with Indian policy makers suggesting “the offer was a pretext for spying”[5]. The area holds particular significance, as it is said to “shelter India’s strategic military installations”. China and India are both rising powers seeking to project this power on an international level. However, their relationship is plagued with previous conflict and overlapping interests. Therefore, both states have attempted to contain the power of the other whenever possible. As a result of this, India and China view each other with great suspicion. Whilst this suspicion stems from a historically grounded mutual distrust, it is arguably based on recent events as well. For instance, last year, a Tibetan man was arrested and suspected of being a Chinese spy in Dharamsala[6], where the Dalai Lama maintains his residence.

Whether or not the PLA Navy was acting with ulterior motives, it is important to consider which state is best equipped to search for the aircraft. Surely, the nation with the strongest capability should lead the charge. The United States is ranked as the world’s largest military, with China second and India fourth[7]. However, the situation is clearly not that simple. It is also important to consider issues of accessibility. Thailand, India and Australia are particularly involved due to their geographical proximity to search locations. International efforts have been coordinated to some degree, but self-interest and autonomy keep getting in the way. Perhaps if states were more willing to accede control and participate in a truly international search, they would be less likely to act on wrong information, and would stop wasting valuable time. Take for instance, the mistake made by Chinese cargo planes[8], which landed at the wrong airport in Perth before aiding the search for MH370. More effective information sharing would reduce the chance of errors, and result in an increased chance of success in locating the aircraft.

States are simply not cooperating to the full extent. There are numerous factors to consider, including the risk that those offering assistance may in fact be looking to gain rather than aid. Because of this, time is running out. The chance of recovering the aircraft and establishing what went wrong was slim to begin with. Rivalling states refusing to work together have only made matters worse.

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