Is Malaysia fit to lead widened search for missing flight MH370?

Now that the operation is moving into a new, much wider stage, Beijing should demand better co-operation to find missing plane

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 4:24am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 4:24am

Nearly eight days after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Saturday made the first definitive comments on how the Boeing 777-200 carrying 239 passengers and crew had vanished.

Someone, he said, had taken "deliberate action" to disable the communications systems and change the course of the jet which could have continued flying for a further seven hours.

While Najib stopped short of calling the incident a hijacking, he admitted the plane could be anywhere in the Indian Ocean, or as far away as Kazakhstan, thousands of kilometres from the South China Sea where its transponder sent its last signal.

His remarks marked the investigation had moved into a new phase which would focus on the crew and passengers.

Najib's statement confirmed much of what had been leaked to the media in the preceding few days - that military radar and satellites had picked up signals of what may have been the missing aircraft, which seemed to be flying on a westerly course, far from its intended flight path to Beijing.

It has also confirmed widespread suspicions that Malaysia's civilian and military leaders had been aware of this information much earlier but failed to disclose it promptly and publicly.

Instead, from the day the plane was reported missing, Malaysian officials gave evasive answers and conflicting accounts for much of last week, exposing their government's incompetence and lack of co-ordination in the eyes of the international community, to say the least.

From the beginning, Malaysian officials said they would not rule out any possibility, including foul play. But it emerged that investigators had only searched the homes of the pilot and other aircrew, and were taking a closer look at the passengers' backgrounds, over the weekend - more than a week after the plane went missing. These should have been done much earlier.

In retrospect, valuable time and resources were wasted as the extensive ocean search around Malaysia, involving 14 countries, 43 ships and 58 aircraft, had proved useless, turning up not a single piece of evidence.

Despite the fact so many countries are involved in what is said to be the biggest search and rescue operation in aviation history, it now transpires that certain countries were reluctant to share military radar data of the flight route, which also delayed pinning down basic information of the plane's movements.

The reality may be very different from Hollywood blockbusters in which powerful satellites can pinpoint any person or moving target to within metres. But the missing plane lost its signal in the South China Sea, an area of hotly contested territory that should be bristling with military radars. It is hard to imagine these countries failing to pick up signals from the plane after it vanished from civilian radars.

One can only surmise that, despite the scale of the disaster involving so many lives, various militaries in the area were reluctant to share information for national security reasons and fear of giving away military secrets.

It is quite telling that the Malaysian military, several days after the disappearance of the plane, started to drop vague hints their radar had continued to track the plane. These comments were at first dismissed publicly by Malaysian officials, who only on Thursday said that they were setting aside national security considerations to share military radar data with the US.

It is widely accepted that the host country of a missing airliner should be responsible for co-ordinating the search operation . But Malaysia, which has little experience in handling crises on this scale, proved incompetent.

Now that the multinational search operation is shifting to the Indian Ocean, an important question arises: should Malaysia continue to lead the operation?

Ever since the flight disappeared - carrying mostly Chinese passengers - Beijing has reacted swiftly, sending warships, deploying satellites, and dispatching a work group to Malaysia to aid the search operation.

By all accounts it has been a frustrating exercise for Chinese officials, who have sought more detailed and accurate information from the Malaysians.

It is time for Beijing to step up and lead the operation, using its influence to press the relevant nations to work more closely to solve the mystery.