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From tragedy to diplomatic mess: MH370 and the South China Sea

From tragedy to diplomatic mess: MH370 and the South China Sea
Published 19 Mar 2014   Follow @elliotbrennan

As the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 drags deep into its second week, we should be mindful of the growing diplomatic fallout from the incident.

Last week Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Qin Gang stated that China was urging Malaysia 'to speed up the investigation and provide accurate information'. Since then China and its social media outlet Sina Weibo have been increasingly vocal in their anger over the Kuala Lumpur's handling of the search effort.

Relatives of Chinese passengers (the majority of passengers on the Beijing-bound flight were Chinese nationals) are angry and threatening hunger strikes in protest. Anger was further highlighted last week in a Xinhua op-ed that accused the Malaysian Government of a 'dereliction of duty'.

Certainly, information from Malaysian authorities has not been as free-flowing as the constant headlines would suggest. This was highlighted publicly when the Malaysian Government clumsily released information (a week after the initial disappearance) that the plane continued traveling for up to eight hours after its last communication. This frustrated many as it meant the initial costly search likely took place in the wrong area.

In numerical terms at least, regional cooperation has been significant, with 25 countries participating in the search effort. Yet, with an enormous search area, some have given up: Vietnam has called off its search, and Singapore has recalled its C-130 aircraft, a frigate and a corvette.

The MH370 incident will impact on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. [fold]

Claimants in the South China Sea's territorial disputes, such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Indonesia, have participated in the search. But adding to public frustration and to a perception of poor cooperation and information-sharing in the region, Thailand yesterday announced that its military radars may have picked up MH370 last week, information that was not passed on to Malaysia.

The implications will not be lost on China. If, as many analysts believe, China this year tries to extend an Air Defence Identification Zone further into the South China Sea, there will be a renewed pressure in the region to improve air and maritime awareness and information-sharing. 

For Malaysia, the criticisms of its handling of the incident overshadows recent triumphs in international relations, including negotiating a ceasefire between the Philippines Government and southern MILF rebels; a peace accord is due to be signed on 27 March. Malaysia's handling of the MH370 incident may also tarnish its holding of the ASEAN Claimants Working Group Meeting on the South China Sea on 25 March.

The diplomatic fallout of the mismanagement of the MH370 incident could be significant. Indeed the diplomatic mess that has already ensued will have a lasting effect, most notably on relations between China and Malaysia. It also demonstrates the need for improved cooperation, information-sharing and confidence-building in the region. Despite years of improved cooperation, the region is still a long way off where it needs to be.

Photo by Flickr user Aero Icarus.

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