The Malaysian Airlines tragedy and South China Sea geopolitics

While the apparent crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 is first and foremost a human tragedy, we should not lose sight of how search and rescue efforts are being played out within the context of a geopolitical drama.

Some news reports have noted that the South China Sea, where search and rescue efforts have been concentrated, is a zone of competing territorial claims and ongoing diplomatic tensions. However, usually these tensions are reported as being transcended by the international effort to find the wreck and (hopefully) any survivors.

One of the more extensive discussions of the geopolitical context occurred in The Guardian:

Fears over the fate of missing passengers have Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Philippines maritime authorities working together to scour the area of the South China Sea where the plane went missing. That’s notable, given that decades-long tension over maritime borders in the area are increasingly coming to a head.

Earlier this year China declared that non-Chinese boats seeking to fish in disputed areas of the ocean would need to seek its permission, which the U.S. State Department labelled “a provocative and potentially dangerous act”. This missing flight appears to have brushed all that aside – for the moment.

“In times of emergencies like this, we have to show unity of efforts that transcends boundaries and issues,” Lt. Gen. Roy Deveraturda, commander of the Philippine military’s Western Command, said.

In addition to China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, the militaries of Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and the United States are also contributing to the search effort, leading security analyst Ankit Panda to call the operations “a reminder of what military cooperation can look like.”

We should think twice before accepting these celebrations of international amity, however. Part of my scepticism here comes from other reports from the region that note how, even as the militaries may be cooperating operationally, the politicians are engaged in a war of ‘finger-pointing’.

But my scepticism goes deeper as well. After all, given the flourishing of scholarship over the past two decades on the politics of humanitarian aid and on the role of emergency preparedness and emergency response in forging (and projecting) state power, shouldn’t we question the assertion that search and rescue operations transcend “boundaries and [political] issues”?

Given that the last known location for the aircraft was just on the Malaysian side of the Malaysia-Vietnam maritime boundary (but with the aircraft headed toward Vietnam), both of these countries likely are aware that at some point in the future their actions in dealing with this crisis could be used as evidence in supporting a future maritime boundary claim. Other states in the region, while not directly contesting those particular waters, also have good reason to remind their neighbours of their interests in the South China Sea (and that they have the military resources to support those interests).

The United States and China each have had multiple reasons for becoming involved in the effort: the majority of passengers on the plane were Chinese and the plane was a US-built Boeing. However, the US and China also likely are using the crisis to demonstrate their effectiveness in their ongoing competition for regional hegemony. After all, one’s ability to move military hardware without delay to the waters off Malaysia and Vietnam sends those countries a message: We can be here quickly, whether you want us here or it’s in your interest for you to be our ally.

Amidst the broad set of opportunities to show goodwill in the region, smaller opportunities to build links are also being taken up. As Chinese officials increased their criticism of Malaysia’s efforts, the leader of the US Navy’s forces in the region, Cmdr. William Marks, made a point of telling the BBC, “I have to give a lot of credit to the Malaysian government. They are coordinating this in a terrific fashion. Everything’s very well organised.”

None of this takes away from the human tragedy befalling the airplane’s crew and passengers, and their families and loved ones. But it should remind us that just as we should always question the concept of a ‘just war’ we should also question the concept of a ‘politics-transcending search-and-rescue operation.’

Phil S.

10 thoughts on “The Malaysian Airlines tragedy and South China Sea geopolitics

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:

    Some initial thoughts on how the ongoing South China Sea dispute is and isn’t being considered in media coverage of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappearance (reblogged from RHULGeopolitics)

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