Every cloud…

An Australian serviceman searches for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Photo by AFP.
25 March 2014
An Australian serviceman searches for missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370. Photo by AFP.


Enhanced regional security cooperation may be a silver lining to the dark cloud of missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370, writes JOHN BLAXLAND.

The missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 Boeing 777 aircraft, with the apparent loss of all passengers and crew, has captivated the world for over two weeks.

Each revelation generates surprising twists and turns in the story of the search for the missing aircraft. For Australia perhaps the biggest surprise has been that so much of the search and recovery efforts are based out of Perth. Equally surprising, however, is the level of international cooperation and collaboration this operation has engendered.

Experience in Aceh, following the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of 2004, and elsewhere has seen the Australian Defence Force (ADF) place considerable emphasis on collaborative international military exercises. Members of respective defence forces meet together, share stories and compare notes, while studying contrasting techniques and procedures. 

This kind of activity is sometimes called military diplomacy. It provides avenues for members of the ADF to get to know and become familiar with members of neighbouring defence forces as well. This is increasingly seen as a good thing. Building trust and mutual confidence can help in times of crisis.

For many years now Australia has conducted bilateral and multilateral military and inter-agency exercises with a range of countries and that is providing real dividends, notably with US Navy Poseidon aircraft and the New Zealand Orion aircraft working intimately alongside the Orions of the Royal Australian Air Force in the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane.  This arrangement could be cobbled together quickly and confidently because of the trusted and tested nature of the relationship, established communications channels, common procedures, language and equipment.

To a large extent there is the same kind of collaborative arrangement in place with Malaysia and Singapore through the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA).

The FPDA helps facilitate a wide range of annual air, sea and land exercises that help build trust and common understanding. This provides mutually-understood levels of proficiency in military skills that can be called on in an emergency – such as we are witnessing at the moment. Largely because of the historical quirks behind the origins of the FPDA, Australia’s most important neighbour, Indonesia is not part of it.

Manis is the Indonesian word for ‘sweet’.

There is a clear case for Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore to work together to sweeten regional security cooperation in this manner. A MANIS Regional Security Cooperation Forum could address a range of security priorities of mutual concern.  There is a pressing need for some creative regional diplomacy to help bring such an arrangement into effect.

Interestingly, China’s People’s Liberation Army, with its Navy and Air Force, have only featured peripherally so far in the kinds of military exercises that Australia has conducted routinely and intimately with the other security partners mentioned.  But perhaps the time has come for China to become more actively involved in such activities – and for them to feature more prominently on the East Asian international scene.

The events of the last few days point to the clear benefits that would accrue from having established and practiced procedures together in advance of launching into such a risky venture so far from shore on the highest and roughest of seas known on earth.

The ‘Roaring Forties’ as they are known, have been the source of shipwrecks for generations and this is exactly where the American and Chinese-sourced satellite images suggest the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 may have splashed down to earth after running out of fuel.

The coordination of activities between aircraft of different nations is a challenging activity at the best of times. But so far from shore, flying at very low level and working on a narrow flight path suggests the aircraft involved are undertaking a dangerous task.

Incorporating aircraft from other nations such as China, which have not worked closely together with Australian, New Zealand or US aircraft in the past, adds to the level of risk involved – particularly as a result of the increased prospect of misunderstanding through unfamiliarity with each other’s procedures, approaches, and means of communication.

To be sure, under the pressing circumstances being faced at the moment, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the respective military teams will do their best to facilitate the Chinese aircraft working in as part of the search program. But how much safer and better it would be if this was merely another iteration of a well-oiled procedure often practised between these types of aircraft.

In essence, Australia should look to foster closer ties with the ‘Manis’ countries while inviting China and the United States, amongst others to participate as well. 

If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that is the MH 370 disaster, it is the pointer to the need for a sweetening of regional security cooperation; especially in the event of responding to other short-notice disasters.

Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. He tweets @JohnBlaxland1

This article was first published in The Canberra Times.

Updated:  16 October, 2013/Responsible Officer:  Web Communications Coordinator/Page Contact:  Web Communications Coordinator