Wednesday, 26 March 2014

MH370 – Geopolitical Implications of the Missing Plane

By Danny Liew Shan Lee

On the early hours of 8th March 2014, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 to Beijing, carrying 239 souls (of which 153 are Chinese nationals) took off from Kuala Lumpur International Airport.  Not even 2 hours later, the flight turned missing.  Her transponders and communication systems were all shut off. 

Who or why and how it happened, as at writing time are beyond our comprehension.  Theories upon theories, many of them conspiracy in nature were shared.  Many if not all were easily debunked.

But what we know today is that in the effort to search for the missing plane has certainly resulted in tectonic shift in the regional geopolitics.

Geopolitical Shift?

To search for the missing plane, no efforts were spared.  The SAR mission which now has entered its third week, are now participated by no less than 25 countries, encompassing an area that covers almost one third of the earth.

To begin with, no SAR had ever reached the proportion of the SAR mission that we are seeing today.  

While early days of the SAR had met many hiccups, but the fact that the mission is still ongoing without any mishaps is a testament of the organizational skills of the command centre here in Kuala Lumpur.

But with so many nations being involved in the SAR mission, how did this resulted in geopolitical shift in Malaysia?

Enemies or Allies?

With the plane was initially thought to be missing somewhere between Malaysian and Vietnamese maritime border, earlier SAR missions were focused in this area.   While Malaysia and Vietnam has little to argue about except for Spratly, the fact that Chinese nationals were the majority on the missing plane, resulted in China also knocking on Vietnamese doors.

While they were once allies during the Vietnam War, the 2 nations fought 2 skirmishes, one of them involving a naval battle.  The Chinese request to enter into Vietnamese territorial waters to assist in the SAR mission were seen with suspicion.  In fact, the SAR mission in Vietnamese territory, both land and waters were exclusively done by Vietnamese military and civilian support.

But the geopolitical tectonic plate shook hardest when it was revealed that Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) radar installation had actually captured the plane turned into Thailand airspace and was last detected somewhere near Pulau Perak, a Malaysian Armed Forces Forward Operations Base (FOB).
Incensed, the Chinese government had via her official mouthpieces reprimanded the Malaysian Government for delays in releasing the details. 

While the delay in releasing the details were also noted by the Western media, the surprising praises received from the Obama administration and US military had certainly been seen as more acceptable than harsh reprimanding by the Chinese government.

Cornered by two giants, Malaysian government did what no other nations had done before, by releasing critical raw military data to both nations. 

While this action had assuage the negativity in the previous communications, the fact remains is that Malaysian government officials were not comfortable with the strongly worded commentary from the Chinese government.  

In addition to their increasingly belligerent actions in South China Seas, Obama’s administration softer approach, with kinder words and offers of assistance were certainly a pull factor.  Soon after, Malaysian government gave the American teams (FBI, NTSB and CIA) more access to the investigations that is currently being run from KL.

Further push factors from the Chinese government happened when they recently announced that they are pushing for their claims on Natuna islands, currently recognized as Indonesian territory[i]

Chinese Government Reaction

The Chinese Government had probably realized belatedly that their actions do not bode well to their international standing.  When they offered to India to allow their navy to send several PLA – Navy ships into Indian territorial waters to assist the SAR mission, they were politely rebuffed by the Indian Navy.

Nevertheless, the recent China’s CCTV interview with Madam Liu Guiqui[ii] where she had categorically denied that she was being manhandled by Malaysian police officers after she and several other next-of-kin barged into the press conference has the echo of the Chinese government using the media to soften their blows on Malaysian government’s image, and perhaps to contrast the way the Western media had been attacking Malaysia. 

However, it remain to be seen how these softer approach would work on the Malaysian government.  After all, Malaysians are also part of Asia where the culture of shaming another is highly frowned upon.


Maybe it is too early to talk about reconciliation.  While being closer to Uncle Sam may be good for Malaysia on short term, Malaysia’s future lie in this region.  Whatever current spat between Malaysia and China, while it had rocked the boat so hard that both are now wet, both countries must be in cognizant that we need each other more, than say needing Uncle Sam.  The trust may have been broken, but like any siblings, the blood runs thicker than water. 

The question is, who should start the reconciliation?

NOTE: as at press time, Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had announced that the plane is believed to have crashed in the middle of South Indian Ocean, with virtually no chance of survivors.  With sadness, we at DSGC would like our readers to offer prayers to the departed souls.

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