SYDNEY - With the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 entering a new, much longer phase, the countries involved must decide how much they are prepared to spend on the operation and what they stand to lose if they hold back.
The search is already set to be the most costly in aviation history and spending will rise significantly as underwater drones focus on a larger area of the seabed that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Monday could take six to eight months to search.
But despite US President Barack Obama publicly promising to commit more assets, the United States appears keen to begin passing on the costs of providing sophisticated sonar equipment that will form the backbone of the expanded hunt. That means Australia, China and Malaysia - the countries most closely involved in the operation - look set to bear the financial and logistical burden of a potentially lengthy and expensive search.
"We're already at tens of millions. Is it worth hundreds of millions?" a senior US defence official told Reuters last week. "I don't know. That's for them to decide."
He made it clear that Washington was intent on spending less from now on, making it the first major donor country to scale back its financial commitment to the search.
"We're not going to pay to perpetually use the equipment on an indefinite basis. Basically from here on out - starting next week or so - they need to pick up the contract," he said.
At least US$44 million (S$55 million) was spent on the deployment of military ships and aircraft in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea in the first month of the search, about the same as what was spent on the whole underwater search for Air France's Flight AF447, which crashed into the Mid-Atlantic in 2009.
The Malaysian jetliner carrying 239 people disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing more than seven weeks ago, and huge surface and underwater searches have failed to solve the mystery of what happened. That mystery has major implications for airline manufacturers such as Boeing, which builds the 777 model that crashed and is awaiting a verdict as to what went wrong.
Malaysia is leading an investigation into the crash, but Australia has a key role in coordinating the hunt since the plane is believed to have crashed in its search and rescue zone. Mr Abbott said finding any wreckage on the ocean surface was now highly unlikely and Australia would forge ahead with the upcoming phase of the search despite it likely costing A$60 million (S$70 million).
He added that while private companies under contract to Australia would soon be taking over from the military assets dispatched in the wake of the crash, he would be "seeking some appropriate contribution from other nations."
Malaysia has repeatedly said cost is not an issue, but with searchers once again facing a potentially vast stretch of ocean, it acknowledged on Wednesday that money was up for discussion. "I will be going to Australia to discuss the next phase. As we go into deep sea search it's important that cost is discussed and we'll discuss with all stakeholders," Defence Minister and Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.