On Tuesday, Thailand announced that its military radar had a plane that may have been the missing Malaysia MH370 just a few minutes after it disappeared on March 8. While they were not sure if the plane was actually MH370, it still seemed like a potentially important piece of evidence now that some theories suggest the plane could have flown northwest after dropping out of communications.
So why did they wait 10 days to tell Malaysia? The answer, apparently, is simple: Malaysia hadn't asked them correctly.
Thailand's Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn told reporters that the initial request for information from Malaysia had been too vague. “When they asked again, and there was new information and assumptions from (Malaysian) Prime Minister Najib Razak, we took a look at our information again,” Montol said, according to the Associated Press. “It didn't take long for us to figure out, although it did take some experts to find out about it.”
Given that the region is in the throes of one of the biggest airplane-related mysteries ever, it does seems like an odd lapse of communication. Some might also wonder if tensions over Malay separatists in southern Thailand played into it, though there's no real evidence it did.
The situation highlights the apparently befuddled nature of Malaysia's response to the crisis: Confusion and communication issues have repeatedly angered friends and relatives of those missing. But it also highlights what is likely to be an underplayed factor in the increasingly international search for MH370: The role of Malaysia's neighbors in the search for MH370, and how their relationship with Malaysia has affected it.
As many people have noted, one of the strangest aspects of the original spot MH370 lost communication is that it is over the South China Sea, one of the most disputed areas in the world – Malaysia is one of five countries that claims the South China Sea's Spratly Islands (the others are China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines), for example. And while the Spratly Islands themselves are far away from any route MH370 is suspected to have taken, another controversial area, the Straits of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia, has been at the center of the search.
Officially, Malaysia's foreign policy is based upon a policy of "establishing close and friendly relations with countries in the community of nations." It's been nonaligned since the early 1970s and is a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), along with Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore Thailand, Brunei, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
Despite this, Malaysia has had a number of territorial disputes over the years. There have been simmering disputes with the Philippines over Northern Borneo, as well as the Ligitan and Sipadan islands, which are also claimed by Indonesia. Singapore, a part of Malaysia until 1965, also has tensions with its larger neighbor: In a recent interview with Singaporean Web site The Independent, Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Deputy Director of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said the two countries' relationships were at a high but still marked by "anger, incomprehension, irritation and envy."
The search for MH370 has resulted in a lot of cooperation between different countries – in total, some 26 countries are aiding in the search. Such cooperation could be taken as a good thing. For example, a lot of people were surprised that Vietnam allowed two Chinese vessels into Vietnamese waters to help with the search. However, others are not so sure. Here's how Philip Steinberg, a professor at Durham University, describes one potential risk:
Given that the last known location for the aircraft was just on the Malaysian side of the Malaysia-Vietnam maritime boundary (but with the aircraft headed toward Vietnam), both of these countries likely are aware that at some point in the future their actions in dealing with this crisis could be used as evidence in supporting a future maritime boundary claim.
The elephant in the room here is pretty obvious. China is not only the dominant power in Asia, it also has a serious claim to much of the area with its famous "nine dash" territorial map, which claims pretty much all of the South China Sea as its own. It has a lot of reasons to care about MH370, too. More than 150 of the 239 people on board the plane were Chinese, something which Malaysian writer Tash Aw said was significant in an op-ed for The New York Times:
The impact of China’s economic rise is striking. Last October, a treaty signed by China’s president, Xi Jinping, elevated relations between the two countries to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” aimed at increasing military cooperation and tripling bilateral trade to $160 billion by 2017. Today, China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner; Malaysia is China’s third most important Asian market after Japan and South Korea.
China hasn't kept its displeasure with Malaysia's handling of the search to itself. Chinese Ambassador Huang Huikang has suggested that the Malaysian authorities were too “inexperienced and lacking the capacity” to carry out the investigation properly. "The contradictory and piecemeal information Malaysia Airlines and its government have provided has made search efforts difficult and the entire incident even more mysterious," China Daily wrote in an editorial on Monday.
Finally, it's worth recalling at this point that the fact a plane like MH370 has gone missing, perhaps even in a contested area, doesn't just reflect badly on Malaysia: No other country knows where this plane is either. As Jessica Trisko Darden, a political scientist at the School of International Service at American University, explains at a post for The Monkey Cage blog, that reveals a fair amount of big talk and practical impotence all around:
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.
So yes, things are a little tense. And things could get more tense, depending on what happens in the next few days, weeks, and months: Thailand's delay in giving information to Malaysia doesn't appear to have had too much effect on the search, but it could have.