Realists clouded the search for the missing Malaysian Boeing!

First Air 727-100


It was the 9th of March when I read the unfortunate news that an airplane – Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 – had gone missing. The day before, it had departed from Kuala Lumpur International Airport and was scheduled to arrive at Beijing Capital. However, it never reached its point of destination. A total of 239 people with 15 different nationalities just vanished. I still remember wondering, how can the NSA easily track almost every mobile phone in the world (even Angela Merkel´s) , but a whole airplane can simply go missing overnight and is nowhere to be found? Still wondering, little did I know the implications it could have for international relations and foreign policies.

Different theories about the reason why the plane was missing went viral. However, one thing became clear – quick action was crucial to success. The time frame in which the plane could be found would determine the likelihood of the passengers surviving. Arguably, this would be reason enough to – internationally – share all information, intelligence and technology possible, to successfully accomplish the mission. At first glance it seemed that exactly this was happening, since countries were providing multiple forms of aid. It only took two days to utilize 34 aircrafts and 40 ships by countries such as Australia, Vietnam, the U.S and China [1. Hildebrandt, A. (2014, March 10). CBC. Retrieved March 26, 2014, from]. But the support was handled individually and the willingness to share gathered intelligence was reluctant. This became especially obvious during further investigating the whereabouts of the missing plane and will be briefly summarized:

The U.S. only published information without naming their sources which raised Chinas suspicion. It was argued that the U.S. is trying to hide their technological advancements to maintain their position as a worldpower. Furthermore, China was very much under pressure because it had to show to which extent it could protect their citizens since two-third of the missing passengers were Chinese. Malaysia, then, was criticizing China for releasing information overhasty [2. Branigan, T. (2014, Maarch 14). The Guardian. Retrieved March 26, 2014, from]. Thailand was even withholding radar information that had spotted the airplane right after it lost contact with the Malaysian Airline Company [3. McDonell, S. (2014, March 19). ABC. Retrieved March 26, 2014, from].

The excuse:

No one asked us.

-Air Vice Marshal Montol Suchookorn

It was mistrust hindering the collaboration that should have taken place. It seemed as if prevailing secrecy over technological spyware and suspicion about intentions were outweighing the importance of saving lives.

One could argue that the states behavior stems from their view of international relations. There are three main approaches towards foreign politics, namely liberalism, constructivism and realism. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, its qualities and flaws. I try to provide evidence that the realist theory, in which states deem other states as potential threat driven by self-interest to their security, is the one applicable in this case. The image of humanity in realism is that everyone strives to increase their relative power in the world by all means possible [4. Donnelly, J. (2000). Realism and International Relations. Cambridige University Press].

– This article is not focusing on the extent to which the realist approach towards international relations and foreign politics is “right” or “wrong”. I simply try to clarify the state´s behavior and pinpoint some weaknesses that might result out of the realistic approach –

Particularly the information offered by radar and satellite pictures was deemed potentially valuable for the success of finding the missing jet. By means of those pictures or other instances, a clearer overview of the whereabouts of the flight could have been made. So how did collective cooperation fail based on three questions – why was Thailand withholding their radar information ten days; China be suspicious about the U.S.; Malaysia criticizing China?

Firstly, Thailand had argued that no one had asked for the radar information of the Malaysian airplane, whilst being part of the team in charge of searching. I think one can safely assume that providing information that could potentially lead to saving 239 lives is from a moral standpoint nothing one has to ask for. But Thailand decided not to. Assumedly, because they wanted to make a statement and display power by showing disinterest in other states. This conclusion is opinionated but one thing can be implicated – a particular intention has led to the decision of not sharing this vital information.

Secondly, Some analysts have argued that countries are not willing to provide data because other states could make an estimation of the technological level of a given country. This is, especially so, because the equipment used to searching the missing plane is often times equal to the equipment used for spying. Since information is a key determent in estimating the relative power of a country – evaluating the data as to which technology is needed to acquire it  would mean that countries start understanding what their neighbors are capable of. China was suspecting the U.S. of hiding their spying expertise by not offering sources to their findings.

Thirdly, China had very big interest in finding the missing plane as quickly as possible. Most of the passengers were Chinese and the success of this event would show if China is capable of protecting its people. China was therefore was putting a lot of pressure on the Malaysian Government even stating their in-capability to handle the matter effectively. After taking so much criticism, Malaysia started losing its face in the international community. It began to backfire to show strength. China was then critiqued on the early satellite pictures they published by the Malaysian Government [5. Alexander, L. (2014, March 28). Channel News Asia. Retrieved March 29, 2014].

Not handing over valuable, eventually life-saving information; being suspicious about information because sources were not displayed; simply criticizing and pressuring countries for the sole purpose of defending the own relative power – were present in the search mission and therefore sad evidence that realism can hinder cooperation when it is most needed. The scenario could have been different if – rather than being only suspicious and suspecting – one would have trusted each other. The international post Second World War system is going down the path of liberalism [6. Raustiala, K. (2002). The Architecture of International Cooperation: Transgovernmental Networks and the Future of International Law. Virginia Journal of International Law Association.]. The UN is building a legal constitution in which international and social security is promoted and protected. It is therefore a shame that in this case, mistrust and suspicion had failed proper collaboration between nations. Not only could this event have been a first stepping stone towards a better Asia state-intern relationship but also the passengers and board members of Malaysian flight 370 would have gotten the help they deserved. A hint of liberalism could have enlightened the darkness in which not only the plane but also Asia strayed and still strays.

If governments start to be more transparent, in terms of information sharing, trust could be created and cooperation would be much more effective. It could not only prevent future incidents from happening again but also further the relationship into economic and political collaboration for the benefit of the many.


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