The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 prompted media commentators and regional specialists to marvel at how regional navies quickly shifted from confrontation over maritime disputes to multilateral cooperation in search and rescue (SAR) operations. There was even speculation that current SAR efforts might become the model for future cooperation.
However, after a few days of concentrated search efforts failed to turn up anything definite about the fate of MH370, Malaysia’s handling of SAR operations became the subject of public recriminations.
On March 15, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak held an international press conference where he officially confirmed that the missing MH370 had changed course deliberately from its last known location and flown west away from the designated search area in the Gulf of Thailand/South China Sea. At the time the Prime Minister spoke, fourteen countries, forty-three ships and fifty-eight aircraft were involved in the search.
Malaysian military radar detected what was later presumed to be flight MH370 as it flew over the Malay peninsula towards the Indian Ocean. Information gleaned from commercial satellites revealed that MH370 had likely continued to fly for six or seven more hours headed on either a northerly route over the Central Asian landmass or a southerly route over the Indian Ocean.
Immediately after Najib’s press conference, China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Xie Hangsheng demanded more “thorough and accurate information” about the new search area proposed by Malaysia.
Xinhua, China’s official news agency, took the Malaysian government to task for its lack of transparency and delays in reporting relevant information. Xinhua declared that the search efforts in the Gulf of Thailand was “a huge waste of valuable time and resources… Given today’s technology, the delay smacks of either dereliction of duty or reluctance to share information in a full and timely manner.”
Xinhua further editorialized that Boeing, the manufacturer of the 777-200 aircraft, Rolls Royce, the manufacturer of plane’s engines, and the United States, an “intelligence superpower,” all had access to vital information and should “have done a better job” sharing it with China.
Whatever the veracity of China’s criticism, it is apparent the ongoing MH370 saga has exposed serious shortcomings in efforts to establish an effective regional SAR emergency management regime.
For example, as long ago as April 1972 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation reached an Agreement for the Facilitation of Search for Aircrafts in Distress and Rescue of Survivors of Aircraft Accidents. This agreement established mechanisms for states to request/offer assistance and coordination of emergency joint operations.
Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia acceded to the 1972 agreement when they became members of ASEAN. In November 2006, seven ASEAN countries carried out a three-day Search and Rescue Exercise.
ASEAN-China cooperation on search and rescue has been marked by procrastination. For example, on December 7, 2004 China and ASEAN agreed to establish a Joint Working Group on the Implementation of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). This group was charged with implementing, among other activities, search and rescue cooperation.
The DOC was agreed to between China and the ten members of ASEAN in November 2002. Despite the creation of the Joint Working Group in 2004, no guidelines were drawn up to implement the DOC until 2011. It was only in June last year that ASEAN and China held a workshop on strengthening cooperation in search and rescue at sea.
At the sixth China-ASEAN Senior Officials’ Meeting and the ninth Joint Working Group Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC, held in China in September 2013, China proposed a “maritime emergency help line” and a joint maritime search and rescue sandbox exercise.
A review of ASEAN efforts to forge SAR cooperation reveals agreement on policy objectives, progress in implementation and capacity building but few large-scale practical exercises. None of ASEAN’s SAR activities addressed the kinds of issues that emerged following the disappearance of flight MH370.
In 2009, the ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint, a major policy statement, recommended that action be taken to promote cooperation in maritime search and rescue, but restricted its recommendations to “information sharing, technological cooperation and exchange of visits by authorities concerned.”
In October the following year, ASEAN adopted the Declaration on Cooperation in Search and Rescue of Persons and Vessels in Distress at Sea. This Declaration encouraged members to designate a national Rescue Coordination Center, to establish direct communication channels to share information and assist in search and rescue, and to promptly extend support upon request to assist in SAR operations.
The Declaration further encouraged members to intensify cooperation in capacity building for SAR missions at sea, to promote cooperation with ASEAN’s dialogue partners, and to maintain a directory of all national Rescue Coordination Centers.
Finally, the Declaration called for developing and strengthening coordinated regional approaches and for establishing or upgrading “regional policies, operational mechanisms, plans and communications system to prepare for and ensure rapid and effective response to distress situation.”
It should be noted that the focus of ASEAN SAR planning is mainly on ships in distress at sea. For example, the chairman’s statement issued after the twenty-third ASEAN Summit in Brunei in October last year declared that ASEAN leaders looked forward “to developing the ideas of establishing hotlines of communication to further enhance trust, confidence and to respond to emergency situations at sea and cooperate in the area of search and rescue for vessels in distress at sea…”
The ASEAN Maritime Forum, which was founded in 2010, has held four meetings. None of these meetings has explicitly addressed SAR missions, capacity building or practical exercises.
As the MH370 incident revealed, military assets are invariably committed to SAR missions, especially in their initial phase. ASEAN Defense Ministers, however, have not made SAR a priority. For example, the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM), established in 2006, began to conduct tabletop exercises in 2011, but they have not included SAR.
ASEAN Naval Chiefs, in contrast, have begun to address SAR issues, at least tentatively. In July 2012, the Singapore and Indonesian navies co-hosted the inaugural ASEAN Maritime Information Sharing Exercise at the Changi Command and Control Center in Singapore. During this exercise national control centers were electronically networked with the Changi Center to exchange information on maritime security. While this exercise did not address SAR directly, it demonstrated the utility of a region-wide electronic communication network. Later, in September, the ASEAN Chiefs of Navy Meeting held in Brunei agreed that the center in Singapore should add SAR to its responsibilities.
In September of last year, the seventh ASEAN Chiefs of Navy Meeting, held in Makati City, the Philippines, endorsed the idea of establishing hot lines to deal with maritime emergencies but made no explicit mention of SAR exercises or capacity-building.
The 2010 ASEAN Declaration on Cooperation in Search and Rescue of Persons and Vessels in Distress at Sea, as well as other ASEAN policy documents laid the foundations for the Malaysian-directed SAR effort to find the MH370. In doing so, it showed serious weaknesses in ASEAN’s SAR planning.
ASEAN SAR planning appears to be based on the assumption that there will be actionable information about the location and causes of an aircraft in distress over the sea. Planning protocols assume that a search and rescue effort conducted from the last known location of the aircraft would either render assistance to the survivors or locate the wreckage of the downed aircraft. All of these suppositions were absent in the case of MH370.
ASEAN’s past experience providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) to the victims of the 2006 tsunami and Cyclone Nargis in 2005 indicate that it will study the lessons learned from the search for MH370 and incorporate them into future SAR policy planning. ASEAN Ministers of Transport and national civil aviation authorities, for example, are likely to strengthen the protocols dealing with aircraft as they transit from one control zone to another, and speed up the response if there is any glitch in the plane’s ability to communicate while crossing into another zone.
Malaysia should review its management of the MH370 incident, study the lessons to be learned, and make recommendations to relevant ASEAN bodies about how to process and verify information coming from such diverse sources as civil airline authorities, military radar, commercial satellite information and information from intelligence-gathering satellites.
Malaysia should also review its handling of the international media, identify any possible shortcoming or deficiencies, and draw up draft guidance for consideration by other ASEAN members. It is clear that a balance must be struck between providing timely information and ensuring that the information is accurate. Some guidance must be drawn up to manage the expectations of the media about what they can expect in an emergency situation.
This Indonesian Navy is due to host the first joint ASEAN and dialogue partner naval exercise this year, which will focus on military operations other than war. This exercise is scheduled to include an SAR component. This joint exercise provides the opportunity for SAR to be incorporated into the work program of the ASEAN Defence Ministers and their dialogue partners (ADMM Plus). The ADMM Plus has six working groups, responsibility for SAR could be delegated to either the joint working group on maritime security or the joint working group on HA/DR.
The larger implications of the MH370 incident on future multilateral regional cooperation are less clear. The initial search area of the missing MH370 took place in the Gulf of Thailand/South China Sea in a semi-enclosed area outside the maritime zone enclosed by China’s nine-dash line. All of the ASEAN littoral states, except Cambodia, followed Malaysia’s lead and offered assistance despite minor disputes over maritime boundaries.
Extending multilateral SAR cooperation to cover the South China Sea proper is another matter. There, the International Maritime Organisation has allotted the area north of ten degrees north latitude and west of 116 degrees east longitude to China as its area of responsibility for SAR operations. The IMO’s zone overlaps with the national maritime boundaries claimed by littoral states. This could cause difficulties for effective cooperation in the event of a plane crash in a disputed area. This is one area where the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group to Implement the DOC should give priority attention.