The geopolitics of flight MH370

In the longer term, the tragedy of flight MH370 may well spur efforts towards greater ongoing  cooperation in regional maritime security. 

The tragic story of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 seems likely to continue for a long time. No-one yet knows what twists and turns this mystery will bring in coming months or even years.  But with search efforts now focused on finding the aircraft wreckage, believed to lie underwater more than 1,000km off the Western Australian coast, it may be worth making a preliminary evaluation of some of the geopolitical aspects of this incident and potential longer term ramifications for the region.


Major international humanitarian and disaster relief efforts are becoming ever more important tools in generating goodwill, demonstrating capabilities and reinforcing international relationships. The efforts by the US, Indian, Australian and Japanese navies in providing humanitarian assistance in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were seen being as a key factor in prompting the development of closer maritime security relationships between those states.  That is a process that is still bearing fruit.   The absence of China from international relief efforts in response to the tsunami was also noted by many in the region. The international response to the MH370 disaster could also have significant long term strategic implications.

The search for MH370 has probably been the largest ever multinational search and rescue effort in the world, with some 26 countries contributing more than 60 ships and 50 aircraft.  The search efforts began in the South China Sea, then switched to the Andaman Sea before moving to the eastern Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia. On one level the scale of the effort has been a heartening example of international cooperation, especially in the context of heightened strategic tensions throughout the Indo-Pacific region. But there has also been a strong underlying geopolitical element in the search efforts.

The biggest loser of this saga – at least so far – has been Malaysia, which has come under severe criticism over its response.  The incident has placed the Malaysia-China relationship, which has sometimes been seen as quite cosy, under considerable strain.  Rightly or wrongly, relevant Malaysian agencies seemed unprepared to cope with a search effort of this magnitude and were perceived to lack transparency in providing information as the tragedy unfolded.   China and several other states that were participating in the early search efforts were extremely unhappy with the slowness of Malaysian authorities to release information necessary for focussing the search efforts.   No doubt this partly reflected the reluctance of Malaysia and others to release sensitive raw data such as radar tracking records that could later be used to evaluate their maritime surveillance capabilities. But some have also taken Malaysia’s poor performance over the incident as a reflection on problems with the entire Malaysian political system.

China’s response to the tragedy has been mixed.   Beijing certainly flexed its muscles in indicating its displeasure over the receipt of timely information and assistance from Malaysia.  The resources that China has been able to bring to bear in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean has also been impressive.   On the other hand Beijing’s reaction to public protests from grieving families is a stark reminder of the growing power of nationalism in China.   It is likely that in the future, regional governments will be even more sensitive to any events involving a significant loss of Chinese lives.

Overall, India may have been a loser from this saga.   In recent times India has been keen on demonstrating itself as a “net security provider” to its region.  The India Navy participated in the search in the Andaman Sea, reflecting its considerable military capabilities there.  It also wanted to pre-empt the presence of Chinese ships and aircraft in that part of the world.   But India ceased its contributions when the search moved to the southern Indian Ocean in March.  For some, India’s absence from Perth has been glaring, especially in light of its rhetorical claims to be the “main resident power” in the Indian Ocean.  The lack of a navy chief (after the former chief, Admiral DK Joshi, resigned in February after a spate of accidents on Indian naval vessels) no doubt contributed to a lack of direction.  But India’s absence from much of the search for MH370 indicates the failure of decision makers in Delhi to fully understand the soft power significance of Search and Rescue (SAR) and Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations.

Australia has so far been the clearest geopolitical winner from this tragedy.  Australia assumed a central role since the locus of search efforts shifted to its maritime search and rescue zone in the southern Indian Ocean.  The Australian Air Force and Navy (which was already strained to the hilt by its refugee related tasks and operations in the Persian Gulf), were instructed to pull out all stops to ensure that it was kept an Australian-led operation.

Australia has been successful in portraying the search efforts as an example of how the region can pull together to overcome growing strategic tensions.  Certainly the sight of aircraft and warships from Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States and the United Kingdom operating in apparent harmony seems remarkable.  No doubt they have also been keeping a close watch on each other as they conduct search operations – and the involvement of the UK nuclear submarine, HMS Tireless, raised some eyebrows given its potential to conduct surveillance on the search activities by Chinese vessels.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott also successfully placed himself and Australia at the centre of the search efforts, beginning on 20 March when he chose to dramatically announce in Parliament that debris, likely from the missing aircraft, had been located.  That the information came from a US satellite was not given prominence, nor, as it later turned out, that the debris had nothing to do with MH370.  As the search efforts were moved further northwards off the Western Australian coast, on 5 April an Australian ship (using US-supplied equipment) picked up the pings from MH370’s black boxes.  With search efforts now zeroing in on the crash site, Australia is deploying US UUVs to locate and potentially recover the wreckage.  This may not happen fast – Australia recently announced that it had allocated another A$60 million to the search, with an expected timeframe of some 8 months.

Australia is gaining significant reputational benefits from these events.   MH370 has, for example, brought Australia and Malaysia much closer together.  Although the relationship has its fair share of political irritations, in fact, for decades they been alliance partners through the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA).  The FPDA is a post-colonial security construct among Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and the United Kingdom that somehow quietly survived the Vietnam War and the end of the Cold War. It includes the Australian-commanded Malaysia-Singapore Integrated Air Defence System, which is based in Butterworth, Malaysia. That the Australian search effort for MH370 is led by the retired chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston – who was also formerly the commander of the Integrated Air Defence System – is surely no coincidence.

Australia’s growing leadership role over the incident could have long term implications for its relationship with Malaysia and other countries in the region.  Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who visited Australia in early April, agreed to appoint Australia as its “accredited representative” in the investigation into the causes of the crash (in addition to its role in locating and retrieving the wreckage).  This could mean that the inevitably lengthy probe into the jet’s disappearance may be based in Australia.  Australia may end up acting as a trusted intermediary in what could turn out to be a highly politically charged investigation.

Australia’s role in helping to find MH370 may also bring significant benefits for its relationship with Beijing.   Mr Abbott recently visited Beijing on the last stop of an Asian tour which included signing a new defence agreement with Japan.   To the surprise of many, instead of receiving criticism from China, Australia received praise for coordinating the search efforts in the Indian Ocean.  Australia’s efforts in smoothing over frictions between China and other participating countries have been duly noted.

In the longer term, the tragedy of MH370 may well spur efforts towards greater ongoing  cooperation in regional maritime security.  This could, for example, include the establishment of a consortium of Indian Ocean states such as Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and India to provide mutual assistance in SAR, HADR and maritime domain awareness. It has even been suggested that such arrangements could be built upon the existing framework of the FPDA – which could be expanded to include new regional partners.  Whether or not that is feasible, there is certainly now a very strong case for much greater regional cooperation in these fields.  As with the search for MH370, it may be wise for the United States to take a back seat in any new arrangement.  Regional states may be happy to rely on US capabilities or technology, but they are also happy not to advertise it.

Photo: Tony Gladvin George