Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370), a codeshare flight with China Southern Airlines, mysteriously went missing over the Gulf of Thailand in the South China Sea on Saturday morning. As of this writing, the fate of the airplane remains unknown, but judging by the lack of emergency communication prior to its disappearance, most analysts and experts expect that a catastrophic event occurred in mid-air, resulting in a crash somewhere in the South China Sea, near the Vietnamese coast.
To make matters murkier, shortly after the flight’s disappearance, a perusal of the passenger manifest revealed that two men allegedly on the flight – an Italian and an Austrian man – were not actually on the flight; their passports had been stolen in Phuket, Thailand and were used to board MH370 despite being on Interpol’s stolen passports database. The finding gave rise to talks of foul play and possible terrorism, suggesting that a terror attack could have been possible.
While the tragic fate of MH370 is as yet unknown, the international rescue effort over the South China Sea demonstrated a rare show of goodwill and cooperation between Southeast Asian nations who generally are mired in territorial disputes.
The international rescue effort has so far involved Malaysia, China (a majority of MH370 passengers were Chinese), Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia and the United States. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched a terror probe into the vanished plane on Monday. So far, the rescue effort has not turned up anything conclusive; the initial sighting of an oil slick that was suspected to have been a sign that MH370 had crashed turned out to be inconclusive. Vietnamese maritime surveillance aircraft reportedly found a piece of the missing jet – a single door.
The search and rescue operation is currently massive, covering a large swathe of the South China Sea given the uncertainty surrounding the circumstances of MH370’s disappearance. According to Reuters, search vessels and aircraft are scanning a 50-nautical mile radius from the point of last radar contact with the plane, “midway between Malaysia’s east coast and the southern tip of Vietnam … an area of about 27,000 sq km (10,500 sq miles) that includes parts of the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea.” The Malaysian Navy has requested that cooperating navies, including those of Indonesia and Thailand, expand their search beyond that region as well, encompassing the Strait of Malacca (entertaining the possibility that the aircraft might have changed course following the loss of radar contact).
Malaysia has borne most of the responsibility for the search and rescue operation so far, since Malaysia Airlines is a state-owned enterprise. The Royal Malaysia Air Force, Royal Malaysian Navy, and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency all dispatched military aircraft and ships almost immediately.
China dispatched the Jinggangshan and Mianyang, two warships, almost immediately. The Jinggangshan is a particularly well-equipped ship with two helicopters, 30 medical personnel, ten divers and 52 marines on board. On Sunday, China additionally dispatched the Kunlinshan and Haikou to assist in the search and rescue operation. It also adjusted its satellites to help in the operation.
The Philippine Navy dispatched BRP Gregorio del Pilar, BRP Emilio Jacinto, BRP Apolinario Mabini and search and rescue aircraft. Indonesia announced that it would send five ships. It additionally launched the KRI Matocra and KRI Krait, two PC-40 fast patrol vessels, and one corvette. Singapore’s Air Force responded immediately by deploying a Lockheed C-130 Hercules. It deployed an additional two C-130s on Sunday. The Singapore Navy sent the RSS Steadfast and MV Swift Rescue (a submarine rescuer ship) with divers on board. It also deployed the Victory-class RSS Vigour. Vietnam contributed three Antonov An-26s in addition to surveillance aircraft and ships.
The United States’ Seventh Fleet deployed a P-3C Orion craft from Kadena Base in Okinawa in addition to the USS Pinckney destroyer which has two MH-60R Seahawk helicopters on board. The USNS John Ericsson assisted with fuel and logistics replenishment. A second American destroyer, the USS Kidd, has been sent to the region as well. Three U.S. citizens were abroad MH370 but it is likely that the Seventh Fleet’s deployment would have occurred no matter what, preserving a mostly positive U.S. military perception across the region.
The Royal Australian Air Force sent two AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. “This is a tragic mystery as things stand but Australia will do what it can to help get to the bottom of this, to that end we have dispatched two P3 Orion aircraft to assist Malaysia with the search and rescue operation,” noted Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
On Sunday morning, Chinese ships entered Vietnamese waters, searching for MH370. “Vietnam allowed two Chinese navy ships to enter Vietnamese waters at noon,” the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army, Lieutenant General Vo Van Tuan, told reporters. “There are no problems or difficulties working together so far between the countries involved. Vietnam has allowed all ships and planes to take part in the searching in Vietnamese territory,” another official added. As far as The Diplomat could ascertain, Chinese state media have been hesitant to mention any territorial disputes in their coverage of the MH370 disaster.
According to China’s Xinhua, Chinese naval vessels were directly cooperating operational with Malaysian navy ships. Xinhua notes that China Coast Guard 3411 “found eight ships in the nearby waters and has contacted two Malaysian ships among the eight.”
The last major regional crisis to result in an international naval effort was Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in late 2013. Back then, China was criticized for appearing disengaged given its proximity to the Philippines (recall its paltry initial offer of aid to the Philippines to the tune of $100,000). In the MH370 case, however, China has been cooperating with regional navies in the search effort. The fact that a majority of MH370’s passengers are Chinese necessitates such a response from the government, particularly given the proximity of the tragedy to the Kunming knife attacks last week.
It remains to be seen if this cooperation is a temporary show of humanitarian goodwill given the trying circumstances. The tragedy of MH370 affects almost all nations involved in the rescue effort and once the circumstances of the aircraft’s disappearance become clearer, it is likely that the region could revert back to finger-pointing and tension. Nonetheless, the MH370 disaster and the ensuing search and rescue effort are a reminder of what military cooperation can look like in the South China Sea.