Australia’s Search for MH370: Regional Leadership through HADR and Search and Rescue

  • photo courtesy of U.S. Pacific Fleet
    Apr 10, 2014

    Malaysia Airlines flight 370 (MH370) is presumed to have crashed into the southern Indian Ocean, “about as close to nowhere as it’s possible to be, but . . . closer to Australia than anywhere else,” according to Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. In response, Australia’s formidable humanitarian assistance and disaster relief/search and rescue (HADR/SAR) machine has sprung into action. While Kuala Lumpur is formally leading the investigation into what went awry with MH370, Australia has assumed responsibility for the search efforts at Malaysia’s request.

    Australia’s response to the MH370 tragedy has bolstered its standing in the region and underscores why HADR/SAR should be a cornerstone of Canberra’s foreign policy and military posture. In contrast to Malaysia, which earned criticism for its early handling of the search for MH370, Australia has been seen as a capable coordinator. On April 7, Australia confirmed that its ships, using U.S. equipment, had detected signals consistent with the flight’s black box. Two days later authorities announced they were narrowing the search area considerably after detecting further signals.

    Former Defense Force chief Angus Houston has been appointed head of the Joint Agency Coordination Center overseeing the search. He is responsible for coordinating the efforts of seven countries, with up to 12 planes, 14 ships, and a submarine scouring the area daily. The center provides daily updates to families and media and, more importantly, has served to stabilize and organize the search amid considerable confusion.

    Australia’s prominent role in HADR/SAR operations—likely second only to the United States in the Asia Pacific—is an unqualified good for the country. It highlights Australian hard power, offers valuable experience for its military, and garners valuable goodwill in the region, all while making a real difference and helping to promote a safer, more stable Asia Pacific. But the search for the missing plane should not only remind Australia that HADR/SAR is an effective arrow in its foreign policy quiver; it should serve as a wake-up call that such efforts must be elevated above regional politics.

    Australia’s laudable role in the MH370 search stands in contrast to many of its recent setbacks in the region. The Abbott government’s hardline approach toward asylum seekers has upset many, especially in Indonesia, which has seen its waters breached by the Australian Navy during efforts to turn back asylum-seeker boats. Revelations of intelligence-gathering activities around the region have also ruffled feathers, especially in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

    These political and diplomatic disagreements have resulted in strained relations and suspended cooperation, including on HADR/SAR. Ships from 17 nations participated in the biannual Exercise Komodo HADR/SAR exercises in Indonesian waters from March 28 to April 3. All 10 ASEAN members took part, along with China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Of the major regional players, only Australia was absent because its participation had been canceled in January amid the spying scandal and asylum-seeker dust-up with Indonesia. This is exactly the type of outcome that policymakers in Canberra must avoid.

    Diplomatic and political disagreements will occasionally strain ties between nations, even those who are close allies. But multilateral cooperation on issues like HADR/SAR must be elevated to a level above politics. Institutionalizing multilateral cooperation, especially in the military-to-military sphere, is a prerequisite for a peaceful Asia Pacific. HADR/SAR represents the best starting point for such cooperation, as evidenced by the recent focus it received at the first-ever U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum and its being chosen as the subject of the inaugural ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus multilateral exercise in June 2013.

    Australia’s HADR/SAR role in the region is well established, both in East Asia and in the South Pacific. Preserving that prominent role is in the best interests of Australia, the United States, and the Asia Pacific at large. Canberra and Washington are natural partners in this respect. Their military cooperation and coordination is already close, and both are actively working to improve interoperability. Working alongside Australia in HADR/SAR can also reassure people of the United States’ earnest commitment to a more safe and stable regional order.

    The two countries have an impressive record of cooperation on HADR/SAR, including after Cyclone Nargis struck Myanmar in 2008, the Padang earthquake hit Indonesia in 2009, and the Tohoku earthquake devastated Japan in 2011. In the latter case, Japan, recognizing their unique capabilities, specifically requested the assistance of Australia and the United States, both of which quickly mobilized military assets. During the current search for MH370, the United States has provided intelligence support and, perhaps most importantly, the pinger locator that picked up the signals discovered this week.
    HADR/SAR operations are an effective way for Australia and the United States to demonstrate both hard and soft power. Deploying assets around the Asia Pacific is an unquestionable show of military capability, but one done in service of a humanitarian goal. The goodwill that such efforts garner is not quickly forgotten.

    Australia cannot afford to let politics interfere with its regional HADR/SAR leadership. Other states in the area naturally look to its expertise, as highlighted by the search for Malaysia Airlines flight 370. And with U.S. support, Australia can make good use of HADR/SAR efforts to fulfill its humanitarian and foreign policy goals, including the development of a more cooperative regional order in the Asia Pacific.

    (This Commentary originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Pacific Partners Outlook.)

    Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Pacific Partners Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Benjamin Schaare is a researcher with the Pacific Partners Initiative.

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