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IBRU: Centre for Borders Research

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The geopolitics of missing Flight 370

(14 March 2014)

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 mysteriously went missing over the Gulf of Thailand in the South China Sea on Saturday 8th March 2014. The Beijing-bound Boeing 777 disappeared with 239 passengers on board approximately an hour after leaving Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Although theories of the airplane’s disappearance, and speculations as to its likely location, vary widely, according to Malaysian authorities the primary search area remains the disputed South China Sea.

Military Cooperation

The search and rescue has so far involved military cooperation from Malaysia, China, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia and the United States. Malaysia’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) has borne the majority of the responsibility for the search and rescue operation as Malaysia Airlines is a state-owned enterprise.

The international rescue effort has been lauded by some as demonstrating a show of humanitarian good will and cooperation between South East Asian states that are mired in the territorial dispute over South China Sea waters.

International cooperation between China and Vietnam developed on Sunday morning when Chinese ships entered Vietnamese waters searching for flight 370. Lieutenant General Vo Van Tuan, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People’s army commented, “Vietnam allowed two Chinese navy ships to enter Vietnamese waters at noon. 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”. According to China’s Xinhua, Chinese naval vessels were directly cooperating with Malaysian navy ships, with Chinese state media not mentioning any territorial disputes in their coverage of the event.

Lieutenant General Roy Deveraturda, commander of the Philippine military’s Western Command commented, “In times of emergencies like this, we have to show unity of efforts that transcends boundaries and issues”. Zhang Mingliang, an expert on South East Asian studies at Jinan University, Guangzhou, China commented, “Involved parties could learn from this incident about the necessity of cooperation. Maybe it could help future diplomatic relations”.



Notwithstanding apparent operational coordination among the region’s militaries, tensions have begun to mount, reflecting the more typical state of relations in the region. The Chinese government and press, which is facing public pressure since the majority of the passengers on the flight were Chinese, has criticized the Malaysian-led investigation for not searching hard or fast enough. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang has urged Malaysian authorities to “step up their efforts and speed up their investigation” and to make sure China and Chinese passengers’ families “find out the truth of things as soon as possible”.

Some say that that after a hiatus in the immediate aftermath of the airplane’s disappearance a pattern of ‘finger pointing’ is reemerging in the region. Others suggest that politics was never truly pushed aside and that even during the operation’s earliest phases countries were using emergency response to build alliances and to signify their military capabilities.

In the meantime, as the search area extends westwards amidst reports that the airplane remained aloft for several additional hours a host of new countries may be brought in to the search-and-rescue effort. This will further complicate the political context


“Malaysia Airlines: object found by Vietnam navy thought to be part of missing plane-live”, The Guardian, 12th March 2014.

“Malaysia, China and Vietnam point fingers amid search for missing Malaysian plane”, William Wan, Washington Post, 11th March 2014.

“Malaysia airlines flight 370 search and rescue: Cooperation in the South China Sea”, Ankit Panda, The Diplomat, 11th March 2014.

“The Malaysian Airlines tragedy and South China Sea geopolitics”, Philip Steinberg, Royal Holloway Geopolitics & Security blog, 12th March 2014.