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March 20, 2014

Malaysia Plane Search Highlights Need for Improved Regional Cooperation

by Rebecca Valli

As the search for the missing Malaysian plane enters its 13th day and possible sightings of wreckage are reported off Australia’s southwest coast, the Malaysian government is struggling to be responsive to families of the passengers and avoid diplomatic repercussions. Analysts say the incident highlights the need for better regional cooperation.
 
After families of missing passengers publicly lashed out against the Malaysian government's handling of the jetliner mystery, authorities in Kuala Lumpur announced they will send delegates to Beijing, where hundreds of next of kin anxiously await reliable findings.
 
The move is a further attempt by the Malaysian government to correct early missteps that have drawn criticism from China, home to the majority of the plane's passengers.
 
But more than focusing on how one country has handled the crisis, analysts say the struggle to find the plane shows the lack of a regionally coordinated response.
 
“I think it highlights that Southeast Asia for all of the talk is still very much a region captured by national policies, national priorities,” said Nicholas Thomas, a professor of Asian regional governance at City University of Hong Kong.
 
Minister level officials and heads of state in the region routinely participate in regional meetings on security and military affairs through the Association of Southeast Nations, or ASEAN.
 
Regional countries, including China and the United States, also regularly participate in military drills to exchange information and improve capabilities on counter-terrorism. But analysts say cooperation on search and rescue missions has so far been largely overlooked.
 
The strongest efforts, analysts say, have come from the countries’ navies; in 2010, ASEAN foreign ministries passed a declaration on joint search and rescue mission for vessels in distress.
 
The declaration encourages states to create offices for search and rescue missions, share information and provide support in case ships encounter emergencies at sea. But it does not include provisions for catastrophic events such as flight MH370's disappearance.
 
Thomas said one of the obstacles in effectively coordinating search and rescue missions in Southeast Asia is the big divide in capabilities between regional powers.
 
“The more difficult areas to chart, are usually in those areas of lower capacity,” said Thomas.
 
The United States has been playing a leading role in maritime security in Southeast Asia, and in recent years it has expanded access to military bases in Australia and the Philippines.
 
China does not have overseas military outposts, but has been building up its naval capabilities near contested islands in the South China Sea.
 
Li Mingjiang, a security analyst based in Singapore, said China's military modernization could be of help in search and rescue missions.
 
"Over the years China has built the capabilities. It has now all the hardware available and technologies available as well, satellite and other monitoring capabilities, so it’s just a matter of political decision,” said Li.
 
Li also pointed out that Southeast Asian countries largely lack the capacities required and will welcome more active participation from China, just as they have welcomed help from the United States.
 
He said non-traditional security issues, such as coordination on search and rescue missions, are not sensitive subjects.