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Common Cents

Flight 370 - Opportunity for Cooperation or confrontation

Ralph Murphy

(4/3/2014) The whereabouts and specific circumstances of ill-fated, Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 may never be known. What is certain is a change of mindset among South China Sea neighbors who had been locked in a seemingly intractable, diplomatic and even military conflict with The People's Republic of China over maritime disputes in the region. All the nations that had been locked in various conflicts, are now helping the PRC find the missing Malaysian plane. One that carried about two-thirds Chinese citizens.

Malaysia itself spearheaded the search effort for its missing aircraft after it disappeared on 8 March while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing International Airport. The Boeing 777 was lost to surveillance less than an hour after take off. Its 239 passengers and crew included citizens from 15 nations and regions.

When they were unable to perform an adequate search for the plane themselves, Malaysia requested outside aid and quickly got it from China who activated a seldom used "International Charter on Space and Major Disasters (ICSMD)" to mobilize a 15 member body whose purpose is "to provide a unified system of space data (for) delivery to those affected by natural or man made disasters." It brought together satellite imagery and communications from mostly developed nations to include the United States, France, Australia, and others, but did not include the major intelligence functions of these countries, hence proved largely useless.

The ICSMD was founded on 1 November 2000 and successfully used to monitor natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and volcanoes. Flight 370's disappearance was the first plane the organization had ever tried to locate.

The search for Flight 370 began in the Gulf of Thailand, and the South China Sea, and extended to the Strait of Malacca. No trace of it was found and the effort was then extended into the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean. By 15 March military radar data provided by satellite, indicated the plane had wandered off course for about seven hours, and probably crashed in the Indian Ocean somewhere to the south of Indonesia, and west of Australia. On 16 March satellite imagery revealed the possible whereabouts of the plane, and a 26-nation air and sea rescue effort was mounted two days later.

By 24 March Malaysia's government-run "Air Agreements Investigation Branch (AAIB)" concluded "beyond any reasonable doubt" that the plane crashed into the Indian Ocean without any survivors. By 28 March an area 1,850 kilometers west of Perth, Australia was being scoured, and, as of this writing on 30 March, nothing specifically linked to Flight 370 has been found.

While it is still largely conjecture as to why the plane disappeared, China had a plethora of antagonists in the area that were upset by the their territorial claims in the South China Sea. The PRC asserts a historic claim in this area, based on a so-called "9 dash line" demarcation that encompasses most of the South China Sea as their territory. They were largely able to assert control in the region during the post World War II period, as other regional powers who also claimed islands and maritime areas lacked the military power to enforce them.

The Chinese claims include a swath of territory that is rich in fishing and resources such as oil and natural gas. It also provides strategic control of shipping lanes that carry more than half of the oil being transported by sea to Far East ports of call. As China's economy develops, so too does its transport needs for commodities and finished goods. Oil alone that is traversing the region is three times that which flows through the Suez Canal, and five times that of the Panama Canal.

When the Flight 370 disappearance began, there were eight major territorial disputes going on between China and its neighbors. All have offered their help in searching for the missing plane. Taiwan, that is claimed as PRC territory, and is refused diplomatic ties with the 21 United Nations members who consider it a country, has provided two Coast Guard vessels for the search.

India is helping, even though it lost territory to the PRC in 1962 and still skirmishes with China on its Western border. Despite this fact, the Indians have offered air and sea support to include units from the Adaman and Nicobar islands, and they are furnishing satellite data to the Chinese search efforts.

Japan, a historic colonial oppressor of Chinese regions such as Manchuria, and a nation that is currently locked in an East China Sea land and sea dispute with that nation, has provided air defense units to include Lockheed C-130's and even a disaster relief team.

A 1974 Naval battle between China and Vietnam resulted in a PRC victory and annexation of the Paracel islands. Vietnam still claims the territory along with the nearby Spratly islands, along with an Economic Exclusion Zone that China "muscles" out of the South China Sea. The zone is also claimed by Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The claims have turned belligerent at times and require a constant Chinese, naval presence. Despite their ongoing near term hostilities, each nation is involved in the rescue effort for Flight 370. They collectively provide air and sea support materiel.

How long this era of good feeling lasts is unknown at this point in time. Bringing together such a diverse group of friendly and not so friendly nations before the Flight 370 incident was unthinkable. But somehow it happened.

China sees the South China Sea as an area of natural resources that is worth $1 trillion in 2014 dollars. It is priceless as an avenue for transport of goods, as its economy continues to grow and provide for its population of 1.36 billion hungry people. China’s military budget to enforce its claims amounted to about $126 billion in 2012. The other six countries in the South China Sea area collectively paid less than $30 billion on defense. Malaysia paid $4.7 billion of that sum. You can see where a Flight 370 rescue operation was considered unlikely and expensive.

Many of the regional powers welcome President Obama's military and economic "Pivot" to Asia as a "counter weight" to the rising Chinese star. The Philippines even invited US troops back onto their islands. Unthinkable in 1991 when the diplomatic battle to close Subic Bay naval base and Clark Air Base was finally achieved.

Sometimes it takes a disaster to bring out the best in people and nations. It was heart warming to see how the international community rushed to Ukraine's aid as it was being threatened and invaded by its belligerent, bully-neighbor in Moscow. Now we are seeing a similar response as China tries to find closure to the Flight 370 disaster.

Whatever happened to the plane, whether linked to terrorism or misdirected nationalism - every effort has been made to determine and deal with its fate. Given that level of involvement, effort, and commitment it seems likely the puzzle will be solved. A costly venture, but a very humane response. Perhaps the entire region, and by extension- the world will benefit.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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