World powers jostle for influence in AirAsia plane hunt

World powers jostle for influence in AirAsia plane hunt

JAKARTA - US and Chinese warships have rushed to help Indonesia search for a crashed AirAsia plane, but analysts say more than altruistic motivations are at play with world powers jostling for influence.

On the surface, the sight of naval vessels from the world's strongest nations sailing close to each other in the Java Sea, with Russian military planes flying above, shows their willingness to unite in a time of disaster.

But those nations are also cleverly using the disaster to project their militaries as a force for good in Asia, observers say.

The AirAsia flight from Indonesia to Singapore crashed during stormy weather on December 28, claiming the lives of all 162 people on board.

With rough seas hampering the search for the wreckage and the bodies, Indonesia has gratefully accepted the help of military assets from many foreign nations including the United States, China and Russia.

"I don't think there's any question that this is also about building soft power," said John Blaxland, a senior fellow at Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

"They are very conscious of the very positive spin-offs of constructive engagement in these kinds of scenarios. There are very significant and enduring benefits, Blaxland said.

Soft foil for hard power

For the United States, the crash offered a timely example to the region of the advantages of President Barack Obama's drive to increase US military assets in Asia.

The USS Fort Worth, one of two warships it deployed to the Java Sea, came from Singapore where it had just begun a 16-month "rotational deployment".

Such deployments are a key plank of the US efforts to beef up its military muscle in the Asia-Pacific, a strategy that has riled China.

"It shows they are prepared to contribute to humanitarian assistance. It's part of the soft foil for hard power in the region," Blaxland said.

Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, also said such operations won or cemented regional friendships for the United States.

Aside from AirAsia, Poling cited the lead role the US military played in the international response to Super Typhoon Haiyan, which claimed thousands of lives in the Philippines in 2013, and help in last year's search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.

"In the last few years, it has become apparent around Southeast Asia that the greatest benefit of a continued US security presence in the region is its ability to rapidly respond to HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) and search and rescue needs, and assist with maritime security," Poling told AFP.

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