What the search for Flight MH370 tells us about national security in Asia

March 18

This handout photo taken on March 17, 2014 by the Royal Malaysian Navy and received on March 18, 2014 shows a Royal Malaysian Navy ship KD Selangor departing to aid in the search and rescue efforts for the missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 plane over the Southern Corridor. An investigation into the pilots of missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 intensified on March 17 after officials confirmed that the last words spoken from the cockpit came after a key signalling system was manually disabled. (AFP Photo/Royal Malaysian Navy)

The following is a guest post from Jessica Trisko Darden, a political scientist at the School of International Service at American University who studies local and international conflict dynamics in Asia.

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Almost two weeks into the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370, little is understood about the whereabouts of the plane or its ability to apparently fly unseen for several hours before vanishing altogether. What initially appeared to be an unexpected air disaster has become a window into the limited capacity of the governments in the region to monitor and control their territory. The multinational search effort, now involving 25 countries, has provided significant insight into the international relations of the Asia-Pacific region and illustrated the limited potential for regional cooperation.

Apparently all an aircraft needs to do to avoid detection in this contested region is to stop announcing its presence (note to China: stop investing in stealth). While not quite as shocking as the ability of Mathias Rust to land a plane in Red Square during the Cold War, the disappearance of MH370 has flagged several questions relating to the maritime capabilities and military preparedness of Malaysia and neighboring states. Reports suggest that some of the countries that MH370 may have flown over regularly disable their military radar at night or in the absence of a clear external threat to reduce costs. This is hardly a region on a war footing.

Based on the little that is known about the last recorded location of flight MH370, international search operations have been conducted over land, in the South China Sea, the Strait of Malacca, the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean. Both the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait are politically sensitive areas that have been identified as possible flashpoints for future conflict between China and the United States’s allies in Southeast Asia. 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. China has done little to take the lead in the search efforts in spite of the fact that the flight was intended for Beijing and two thirds of the missing are Chinese nationals. Instead, the United States acted unilaterally to expand the search area to the Indian Ocean by deploying the USS Kidd from its position in the South China Sea, again demonstrating America’s maritime dominance.

While the countries of the region lack the ability to effectively monitor their airspace and maritime borders, they clearly have the capacity to blame one another.  Political haranguing has been an evident part of the Malaysian-led search process. Both China and Vietnam repeatedly expressed frustration with Malaysia for providing contradictory details that hampered their ability to search for wreckage. Vietnam temporarily downgraded its search in the absence of credible information before ending it following word that Malaysia had suspended its search in the same area. Relations between Malaysia and China have been strained by an inability to locate the 153 Chinese citizens on board the flight and Malaysia Airlines’ handling of the passengers’ families.

Intelligence sharing related to the search has also been riddled with problems. Multiple accusations of poor information sharing and the rejection of further assistance have been levied against the Malaysian government. These problems were starkly illustrated by initial confusion regarding the identity of the two Iranian passengers using stolen European passports. Although Malaysia amended its 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act to broaden the definition of trafficking, its enforcement remains weak and it has not been keen to share information that shows its weak commitment to stopping illicit flows of people. In the 2013 Trafficking in Persons report, the State Department designated Malaysia as on par with countries like Afghanistan and Mali. The fact that terrorists have used similar passport schemes in the past has not gone unobserved.

Whether the search for MH370 will have a political impact within Malaysia remains unclear. The mayhem associated with Malaysian government media briefings on the search’s developments have led to rare criticism of a regime that has been in power for four decades. Furthermore, the souring of relations with China may reinforce the shift in the ethnic Chinese electorate in Malaysia away from the ruling party that was evident in the last two general elections.

If the search continues for much longer, both the economic and political costs will continue to escalate for the countries involved. Discontent with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s handling of the issue may very well weaken an already challenged Malaysian leadership. Outside of Malaysia, China’s inability to protect its citizens, let alone find them, has garnered its share of interest on Weibo and in the media. The questions raised by the search for MH370 have exposed weaknesses in security that many thought unimaginable. For non-democratic regimes that rely on a reputation for competence and control to stay in power, the absence of either in this case must be far more disturbing than a missing plane.

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