The World

A Mystery in a Very Tense Neighborhood

Crew members of a Vietnamese air force helicopter return from their search for the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on March 10, 2014.

Photo by Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images

Thus far, politics don’t seem to have come into play in the frustrating search for a missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777, which involves “40 ships and 34 aircraft from nine countries … combing a vast area of ocean in the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea, northeast of Malaysia towards Vietnam.” But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that this search is taking place in a very tense region.

About two-thirds of the 227 passengers and 12 crew on board the plane were Chinese, and the Chinese foreign ministry has urged Malaysia to speed up its search, saying, “This incident happened more than two days ago, and we hope that the Malaysians can fully understand the urgency of China, especially of the family members, and can step up the speed of the investigation and increase efforts on search and rescue.”

The level of tension between the two countries hasn’t been quite as high as with some of China’s other neighbors. China and Malaysia are important trading partners and have enjoyed diplomatic relations since the 1970s.

But Chinese naval exercises in January around the James Shoal—a submerged reef about 50 miles off the Malaysian island of Borneo—reportedly prompted leaders in Kuala Lumpur “to quietly step up cooperation with the Philippines and Vietnam, the two Southeast Asian nations most outspoken over China’s moves in the region.” Malaysia has also announced plans to build a naval base near the shoal to protect oil and gas reserves. China wasn’t explicitly mentioned in this announcement, but the implication was pretty clear.

Malaysia is among a number of countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, with territorial claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Based on historical activity, China claims nearly all of the islands and atolls in the South China Sea under a policy known as the “nine-dash line. “

The U.S. has rejected these claims as illegitimate under international law, which has stoked fears in Beijing that Washington is using China’s Southeast Asian neighbors to contain its growth.

The U.S., China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia have all now committed resources to the search for the plane, in an extremely rare example of cooperation in the area.

It’s not quite clear at this point how the politics of this situation will play out, and obviously a lot depends on whether or not it turns out that terrorism was involved.

It’s possible, as the Financial Times suggests, that the tragedy is “providing Beijing with a chance to build goodwill with smaller regional powers that are more used to feeling the brunt of its growing military might.”

But it also seems worth wondering whether these countries might be better able to cooperate on addressing crises in the area if the baseline level of tension were a little lower.