BEIJING — Since Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared on March 8, two dozen nations have joined in the search and demonstrated a true spirit of international cooperation. But absent the timely release of information by certain countries — because of profound fear of compromising national security data — cooperating countries haven’t been able to wholly shed geopolitical calculations in favor of humanitarianism.
Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean, and satellite data from various countries all seem to confirm this. The plane neither flew north nor entered the air defense networks of the countries on its route. This has relieved the southeastern Asian countries, none of which has found any trace of the missing plane in their air defense information network.
If the plane had indeed flown towards the Eurasian continent, it would have obliged the involved countries to share satellite and radar data, information that involves a country’s core air defense secrets.
Malaysia, the country at the center of the investigation, has been widely criticized over the way it dealt with disclosure of information. On March 17, Malaysia’s defense minister claimed that the country didn’t deliberately conceal information that could help the search — except certain data related to its military for national security reasons. Such a declaration angered the Chinese public and caused discontent among Chinese authorities who had urged the Malaysian government to be more forthcoming.
The Malaysian government’s maddening approach is unsatisfactory but also understandable. Asia doesn’t have a security framework that covers every country. The existing safety net is a multiple bilateral alliance chiefly with the United States. Malaysia is not an American ally, and the East Asian country also hosts relatively strong anti-U.S. sentiments.
Moreover, because of recent maritime territorial disputes, the East Asian Seas are facing a relatively sensitive period, which makes it more difficult for these countries to share satellite and radar data.
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U.S. Navy crew members assisting in the search — Photo: U.S. Navy
But in the face of an aircraft disaster, all countries have had to react to humanitarian need. Everybody actively joined in the search, and nobody fought with Malaysia for control. But the country’s inefficiency and poor handling of the investigation has stunned the international press and frustrated others.
After flight MH370 lost contact, speculation about what happened spread like wildfire. It was technical data that finally provided information about where the aircraft crashed. While professional cooperation can help in handling disasters like this one, the distrust brought about by geopolitical strategizing gave rise to wild rumors.
Perhaps the fact that a plane completely disappeared in a sky covered with satellites will drive innovation in aviation technology and jump start a military race toward a solution. Even the United States, whose capabilities are very advanced, didn’t seem to have a clue where flight MH370 had gone.
While countries cannot ignore geopolitical considerations, it’s also true that no country can find the missing flight alone. There is no other choice but to undertake international cooperation. The British satellite telecommunication company Inmarsat, the U.S. Transportation Safety Board, and the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch have played the most significant “professional” roles in the search process. The formation of an intergovernmental organization for handling similar future incidents may be a good approach.
Even if the passengers who were on board the missing plane are found, the Malaysian authorities will still owe their families an explanation about how a flight destined for Beijing ended up in the southern hemisphere. Though it may be possible to locate the crash site, one wonders whether the same cooperation will be employed to discover why such a tragedy happened in the first place. I'm not all that optimistic.