Singapore: Bridget Welsh is Associate Professor of Political Science at Singapore Management University where she teaches courses on comparative politics, parties, political participation, gender and international relations. She specializes in Southeast Asian politics. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. In 2003, the SARS virus epidemic was a wake-up call for Asia, forcing China to increase transparency, fostering closer regional cooperation and bringing human security issues to the fore. The disappearance of MH370 will have a similar transformative effect on regional security, but it will take a different form. In recent years, the focus driven by the need to protect the waters of approximately a third of the world’s trade, as well as access to energy and resources — has been on sea lanes, concentrating on reducing piracy and enhancing naval cooperation. The United States, India, Japan and China have all ratcheted up their patrols, buttressed by the smaller naval operations of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.
But at times the focus on maritime security in Asia has led to tensions. China has resented the encroachment of other powers into waters it views as its own, while spats have intensified between China and its regional neighbors, particularly over islands in the South China Sea. China’s increasingly assertive position has engendered a wariness among countries in the region that has been an undercurrent in the cooperation between neighbors during the current MH370 crisis. Lost MH370, attention will increasingly turn to the skies. The disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines jet has revealed shortcomings in monitoring air space. That no one even knew the plane had veered off course for seven hours raises serious questions — even allowing for the fact the jetliner’s tracking mechanisms effectively turned off.
The contradictions and slow trickle of information from the Malaysian authorities and regional neighbors has highlighted how disjointed, uneven and vulnerable the monitoring of airspace across borders is. Satellite intelligence has increased yet no coordination or mechanism for effective information sharing exists. Many nations are not willing to reveal the technology at their disposal, as seems evident in the delays in sharing data, while some — particularly in Southeast Asia — have to turn to others to access satellite technology. Despite the involvement of over 20 countries in the search, trust and capacity is seemingly lacking. The search for MH370 will lead to a rethink of the existing regional architecture, with the need for stronger multilateral ties to secure safer air travel. One option on the table needs to be a credible investigative body to manage air security across the region. Another important step clearly has to involve improved measures to secure transponders for communication.