The Debate

Japan Joins Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

Japan joining the search provides a rare opportunity for positive interactions with China.

Japan Joins Search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370
Credit: Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 image via Digital Media Pro /

On Tuesday, Japan officially joined in the search efforts for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. A statement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the government was sending a “Japan Disaster Relief Team” to Kuala Lumpur to assist in rescue operations. The eight-person team will include officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Japan Coast Guard, and Japan International Cooperation Agency. Japan also announced that it is sending aircraft to assist in the search, beginning with a C-130H Transport Aircraft (photos of which were posted to the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s Website). Reuters reported that Japan also plans to send three other aircraft, including two P3C surveillance planes.

As my colleague Ankit wrote earlier this week, the search for Flight 370 has provided a rare opportunity for cooperation among Southeast and East Asian nations, many of whom are involved in territorial disputes. In addition to Japan, India and Brunei are also new additions to the search efforts. They join Australia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the U.S., and Vietnam in the search, bringing the total number of countries involved to 12. The search efforts, being spearheaded by Malaysia, have been a rare example of cooperation in the South China Sea, an area that recently seems to have become synonymous with territorial disputes.

However acrimonious the disputes in the South China Sea have been, though, they pale in comparison to the level of tensions between China and Japan. Even the rough relationship between China and the Philippines, who have competing claims to several islands and shoals in the South China Sea, looks almost friendly compared to the constant diplomatic barbs flying between Beijing and Tokyo. Earlier this week, my fellow China Power blogger Jin Kai speculated that if Japan were to join the Flight 370 rescue efforts, it could provide a window for a thaw in China-Japan relations. “Such indirect actions could simply serve to send intended messages, especially at a time when high-level inter-governmental channels have basically failed,” Jin wrote.

Of course, that’s not to say that Japan joining with China and eight other countries to search for a missing plane will lead to a Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe summit anytime soon. But the smallest bit of joint cooperation is better than nothing. It also helps remind both governments (as well as their populations, who also bear responsibility in perpetrating enmity) to remember that, on occasion, China and Japan can work together for a common purpose.

To date, there’s been no official response from China regarding Japan joining the search. However, when asked generally about the number of countries involved in the search, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang offered the following explanation: “International society, especially the relevant countries in the region, had the desire to join hands and cooperate” in the wake of the incident. “Facing this sort of incident,” Qin continued, “each party should strengthen international cooperation on the principle of humanitarianism.” That’s a step up from Tuesday’s press conference, when Qin Gang took advantage of a question about Japan’s nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 earthquake to once again harangue Japan for its “large stockpile of sensitive nuclear materials.”

As Japan joined the search for Flight 370, the country also marked the third anniversary of the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake. These past and present humanitarian disasters provide some common ground for both China and Japan to recognize the value of saving lives. Still, it’s up to the governments to take advantage of a potential “off-ramp” from the escalation of tensions , and so far there’s little indication that either is interested in doing so.