Although the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 while en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8 is undeniably tragic, something positive may come out of it.
Regional maritime security forces are involved simultaneously in search and rescue, and humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations. The resulting cooperation presents a useful opportunity to build confidence and thus make unwanted maritime confrontations less likely in the future.
Arguments over territorial claims in the South China Sea have been put on hold. Instead, there is bilateral and multilateral cooperation aimed at finding the missing craft, and rescuing victims when found.
The 26 countries involved include Australia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama have even spoken by phone to coordinate the operations.
Things were very different before MH370 disappeared. The region's media was preoccupied with the deployment of Chinese maritime security forces in disputed waters in the South China Sea. It was a situation that tended to thwart rather than foster regional maritime peace and stability.
During the Chinese navy's largest-ever joint fleet exercise last November, for example, a vessel escorting the refurbished aircraft carrier Liaoning was involved in a near collision with the Aegis cruiser USS Cowpens. Another example was the harassment of the USNS Impeccable by Chinese maritime surveillance vessels in international waters last July.
This is an appropriate moment for the Asia-Pacific region to take a fresh look at the role of its maritime security forces.
Naval forces have undergone significant change in recent years, with an expansion of inventories and improved capabilities, but their ultimate raison d'etre has remained national defence.
The growth of non-military threats has, however, significantly broadened the function of maritime security forces. They are no longer concerned only with the protection of resources within their 200-mile exclusive economic zones. Security forces must also undertake law enforcement tasks to counter maritime terrorism, piracy and armed robbery, duties which require the projection of force well beyond their territorial waters.
The protection of sea routes, which are vital economic lifelines, especially for energy supplies, is an essential aspect of this broader role. At the same time, however, the prevailing mistrust among the nations of the region has inevitably made such tasks more difficult and complex.
To maintain stability, a crisis management framework between disputing parties is essential to prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings escalating into serious incidents.
One sensitive issue demanding such cooperation concerns preserving the freedom of the skies over areas where maritime jurisdictional rights and interests are contested. The dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea is particularly perilous.
The disappearance of Flight MH370, however, offers an opportunity for constructive engagement. Several crisis management measures could help to build on this spirit of cooperation.
The littoral states could make use of strategic dialogues and hotlines, and conduct exercises and operations only after giving prior information to other claimants. Other possible measures include agreeing to a common understanding of the law of the sea and encouraging the sharing of information.
By allowing a fresh start, this tragedy should contribute to ensuring peace and good order at sea by helping to alleviate the widespread distrust which so bedevils the security of the Asia-Pacific region.
The writer, a retired navy captain, is a Senior Research Fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy and visiting professor with the Department of Defence Systems Engineering in Sejong University, Seoul.
This is adapted from an article in RSIS Commentaries, a Web initiative by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.
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