The Complex

The Fear of Sharing and the Search for Flight 370

There are myriad questions surrounding the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, but one thing has become crystal clear to U.S. military officials: Asia Pacific countries need to learn how to play together better. The search for the jetliner, now in its 22nd day, would have gone faster and maybe have been more effective ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

There are myriad questions surrounding the ongoing search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, but one thing has become crystal clear to U.S. military officials: Asia Pacific countries need to learn how to play together better.

The search for the jetliner, now in its 22nd day, would have gone faster and maybe have been more effective had Malaysia, China, India and other countries involved in the search learned better how to share their intelligence and coordinate the information they had, say current and former Pentagon officials.

"This is yet another example of the incredible need to share among countries in the Asia Pacific," Vikram Singh, who last month left the Pentagon as a deputy assistant secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, said in an interview.

While the search for the jetliner shows a high degree of cooperation between countries in the region, there are a number of examples where that coordination fell short. Many of the problems stem from Malaysia’s own handling of the disaster. The government in Kuala Lumpur was slow to react or explain to the public or other countries what it was doing in the hours and days immediately following the plane’s disappearance. But a majority of the issues are the result of countries not working well together. Governments were either too slow to share information, or were reluctant to do so, stifling the search and delaying it by days, American defense officials said.

In Europe, the crisis brought on by the Russian annexation of Crimea has drawn European allies together. As a result, U.S. officials say there is a reasonably high level of coordination among nations in terms of intelligence sharing. But Asia is still a relative backwater when it comes to coordinating collectively. There is no "habit of information-sharing," said Singh, now a vice president for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington.

Indeed, the search for Flight 370 underscores the need for more information sharing, said Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, in a March 28 interview with Foreign Policy. Many of the countries just don’t coordinate closely on aviation issues, even though they have growing economies and populations that reflect their rise in regional prominence, he said.

"The structures that are in their neighborhood have to keep pace with that," Locklear said. There are structures in place when it comes to coordinating between the U.S. and Canada, and such structures are maturing with Mexico, he said.  The same goes for the Asia Pacific region, he said.  "Their neighbors [in southeast Asia] that are right there with them… they’ve got to look at the lessons from this event and say, ‘What can we learn from that and what can we do better?’"

As pressure grows to determine the fate of the jetliner, each country’s government has grown more defensive about their intelligence and surveillance capabilities and what information they are willing to provide publicly and with other countries.

China blamed Malaysia early on for hoarding information. China, on the other hand, was not quick to explain what it knew about the jet’s circuitous path, which investigators have still been unable to explain and hampered efforts to locate the ill-fated plane. And India did not want to allow China to send ships to search for the jet in the Bay of Bengal out of distrust of Beijing’s intentions in the region, according to media reports.

Some countries aren’t sharing satellite imagery, radar information or other intelligence or data because in some cases they lack certain capabilities and thus sharing information that they do have will highlight the information they don’t have.

"There is a paradox in all of these domain awareness capabilities, like radar," Singh said. "In the vast majority of cases, sharing information from these systems will improve a nation’s security, but the worry about sharing something they don’t want to expose – like gaps in radar coverage -leads to secretiveness that actually weakens security."

Information sharing will be atop the agenda this week when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hosts a first-ever meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in the U.S. Ten defense ministers of ASEAN, which includes Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, will gather in Hawaii and discuss ways to work better together. The disappearance of Flight 370 will force the ministers to examine the lessons they’ve learned over the last few weeks, defense officials said.

During the conference, defense ministers will tour National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Inouye Regional Center, named after the late Sen. Daniel Inouye. The facility, on the island of O’ahu, helps combine climate, ocean and atmospheric data in part to help prepare governments for natural disasters across the Pacific Ocean. But the stop is expected to showcase for defense ministers the value of sharing information. Hagel will have to convince his colleagues that it is in their best interest to work together – whether it’s a lost jetliner, a typhoon or a territorial dispute.

"I think he’s keen to get into a broader, deeper discussion about how we can improve those capabilities as well and interoperability between partners and friends," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters last week, referring to the ASEAN conference. "Everybody’s coming together to try to do the best they can and it’s in times like that when disaster strikes, that you want to be able to put aside whatever differences you might have and work together and — but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look for ways to try to work together better and more efficiently."

The search for the jet isn’t the only example of where a lack of coordination portends a bigger problem. Territorial disputes between a number of countries, including China and Japan, have plagued the region and created instability and animated much of the distrust in the region. Such is the case with the dispute between China and Japan over each country’s claim to a set of islands in the East China Sea – referred to by mainland China as the Diaoyu Islands and by Japan as the Senkaku Island chain.

And earlier this month, two Philippine transport ships were waylaid by the Chinese government, which claimed they were in its territorial waters. Initially, there was confusion in Manila about just what ships Beijing was raising concerns about. That was a sign to the U.S. government that there is little coordination, and no "common picture" of what’s going on in the region.

Defense officials say the level of coordination among many Asian nations is far better than it used to be – and the search for Malaysian jet is in fact also an illustration of that, they say. Even though coordination is lacking, the fact that there was any level of communication at all between the countries searching for the flight is in stark contrast to what might have taken place a decade ago, officials said.

And when piracy threatened economic and political stability in the region in the Strait of Malacca several years ago, a number of countries came together to fight it. The collective fight against piracy offered a positive example of what countries could do in the region if they worked together. But since then, few governments haven’t taken the next step, Singh said. There’s hope Flight 370 will force the issue now.

"That was a case where there was a challenge and they met it, but they really haven’t built on it any further," Singh said.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.


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