What the MH370 Mystery Tells us About Southeast Asian Politics

MH370 has gripped the imagination of the world, knocking the Crimea and Venezuela off TV screens and fostering wide-spread international speculation, as well as a search that now involves twenty-six nations. But what does the continuing saga mean for Southeast Asian politics, a fractious affair at the very best of times?

The most obvious source of international friction over MH370 is — not surprisingly — between Malaysia and China. Out of the Beijing-bound jet’s 239 passengers, 152 were Chinese, giving China a particularly stake in the political game.

China and Malaysia do massive amounts of business together, with China as Malaysia’s top trading partner, and increasingly prosperous (if inequal) Malaysia serving as China’s third-largest Asian market. An October 2013 “comprehensive strategic partnership” between the two nations hopes to bump bilateral trade to a healthy $160 million by 2017. 

Malaysia is home to a considerable population of ethnic Chinese, representing 24.6% of the total population of 28.3 million, per a 2011 census. Political policies favor the Muslim Malay majority and work to keep Chinese and Indian political hopefuls out of government jobs, a state of affairs that increasingly sits poorly with largely urban minority groups. 

The Malaysian government’s continuing failure to locate the jet, as well as it’s less than inspiring attempts to placate grieving family members, are likely to do little to improve the deeply important relationship between China’s leadership and their Malaysian counterparts.

Certainly, many Malaysian business leaders dependent on international trade and warm foreign relations are hoping that a resolution to this long, embarrassing nightmare will be forthcoming soon.

Indonesia has also come into conflict with Malaysia over the missing and highly public jet, deciding on March 18th not to give clearance for three countries to fly six foreign flights over its airspace. The planes remained on the ground in Malaysia, while Indonesian officials claimed that they required clearance from three different governmental agencies to permit the aerial search to continue.

Thailand, too, has received some regional flak for waiting so long to divulge its own radar knowledge of the progress of MH370. Thailand waited ten days to release radar data that may have showed the mystery flight just prior to its communications shutdown.

Thai leaders claimed that they didn’t offer the information because Malaysia hadn’t bothered to ask, raising eyebrows across the region.Numerous observers noted that the information about the flight’s likely path overthe Straits of Malacca might have proved exponentially more useful when the plane FIRST went missing.

Vietnam, for its part, has conducted itself und-ramatically, lending a hand to the continuing hunt in conjunction with other nations. It now looks unlikely that MH370 crashed over Vietnamese airspace or over land as was first suspected, instead heading towards the Straits of Malacca. It’s a revelation that has doubtlessly relieved Vietnamese leadership.

Finally, politics within Malaysia itself are being stained by the continuing hunt, as disgruntled Malaysians claim that the rest of the world now can see for themselves the dysfunction of the Southeast Asian nations leadership — and its lack of accountability and organization when things go wrong.

One thing is clear: everyone in the region desperately wants the plane to be found, before tensions over an errant jet and a highly-scrutinized international incident intensify. The regional failure to communicate and disagreement over how best to handle the MH370 disappearance reflects a deeply fractious relations between many ASEAN’s members.