The cost of MH370 search efforts

Why are countries spending millions of dollars in search of the missing Malaysia Airlines plane?

Search efforts for MH370 continue, despite recent setbacks [EPA]

Two months and too many conspiracy theories ago, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing lost contact with air traffic control and prompted the largest air-sea search in history.

Satellite data provided investigators with two possible corridors along which the missing plane may have sent out its final communications. The northern corridor extended from northern Thailand across the Asian continent to the border of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan while the southern corridor stretched from the western islands of Indonesia to the remote southern Indian Ocean.

Developments in the search lead to a specific focus on the southern corridor, particularly areas of the southern Indian Ocean, about 2,000 kilometres west of the Australian coastal city of Perth.

Throughout the search, families of the 239 people aboard have endured a rollercoaster of emotions as lead after lead has failed to confirm the exact location of the aircraft and the nature of its likely demise.

It was to these families that officials from Malaysia, China, and Australia, pledged in early May that they would not give up the search.

Recently, however, there has been a major setback: Doubt has been raised over whether the detected pings from what was thought to be MH370’s black box are actually from the plane at all. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, who is helping to lead the search from Perth, has also announced the conclusion of their search in the vicinity where the pings were detected, ruling it out as the final resting place of MH370.

In other words, we could be back to square one.

‘Most expensive’ search operation

Overall, tens of millions of dollars have been spent thus far, which is now more than that the amount paid up over two years in a similar search in 2009 for Air France flight 447 when it crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. The search for MH370 is therefore not only the largest of its kind but is likely to quickly become the most expensive in history. Australia, for instance, has budgeted for at least another $83.8m over the next two years. Comparatively, the US has spent $3.3m and is planning to double the original budget of another $4m.

While the US contribution might not seem unsubstantial considering there were only three US nationals on the flight, it doesn’t quite match all the rhetoric we’ve been hearing of late about a so-called pivot to Asia.

Inside Story – The mystery of flight MH370

Nonetheless, since the crash likely occurred in international waters, there isn’t actually a clear obligation for any particular nations to devote resources to the search at all. That is, except perhaps for Malaysia, since Malaysia Airlines is their flag carrier, they should presumably accept some level of responsibility for the incident and search.

Per articles 25 and 26 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, whose 191 signatories include Australia, Malaysia, China, and the US, the only clear requirement for nations to assist planes in distress or investigate a crash is when that aircraft is within its own territory. In such circumstances, it must also permit the “owners of the aircraft or authorities of the [s]tate in which the aircraft is registered” to assist in the investigation or rescue mission.

Given the massive scale of the whole undertaking, it is an endeavour Malaysia cannot carry out alone. It is likely in the diplomatic interests of other nations such as Australia, China, and the US to help, not only in practical terms but also politically.

At what point, though, is it reasonable for some of these nations to bow out and stop aiding in the search for MH370?

Vietnam and Singapore ended their major involvement in the search after scouring the South China Sea. Clearly Malaysia, China, and Australia can’t and probably won’t be backing out any time soon due to their public commitment to the ongoing search effort.

The US, however, might see reason to limit their involvement over the next few months. Still, to remove their assistance entirely might be ill-advised, if they truly wish to follow through with their pivot towards more focused and deliberate relations in Asia. Besides, they’re getting two, maybe three or four, for the price of one; they aren’t just helping one single nation, but a sizeable regional group.

Politicising tragedy

While the majority of the politics and diplomacy between the involved governments has gone smoothly throughout the tragedy, tensions between Malaysian and Chinese officials were inevitable. Even though the Chinese news agency Xinhua has gone so far as to accuse the Malaysian government of a “dereliction of duty”, their $106bn bilateral trade relationship should be a major incentive to keep the partnership in good health. Additionally, they have many other investment, security, and social ties which will likely see them through this short but shaky episode.

Political capital is also gained and lost in the various domestic arenas. In Malaysia, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has repeatedly questioned the truthfulness and competence of the government over the catastrophe.

Commentators have also noted the stark contrast between Australia’s seemingly generous support of the search effort and it’s less generous treatment of asylum seekers who attempt to enter the country via boat.

“The mysterious disappearance of MH370 reflects not only an incompetent regime ruling the country, but an irresponsible government,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in March.

Even though his condemnation could be entirely justified due to the Malaysian government’s multiple inconsistencies and altogether clumsy handling of the incident, that hasn’t stopped his opponents calling it an unhelpful overreaction and political gaming.

Commentators have also noted the stark contrast between Australia’s seemingly generous support of the search efforts and its less generous treatment of asylum seekers who attempt to enter the country via boat.

Also, in light of the large expense Australia is willing to dedicate to the MH370 search, local military veterans have called for renewed search efforts to find Australia’s first submarine, HMAS AE1. It was last seen almost a century ago in September 1914 off the coast of Papua New Guinea.

Unique cooperation

All of this spells a highly unusual set of circumstances. After all, when was the last time elements of the Chinese Air Force landed on an Australian runway with no questions asked? We can hardly call it common.

These unique interactions between nations who normally treat each other with suspicion are a rare sight for us all  and perhaps highlight just how unnecessary our suspicions and mistrust might be. In fact, a breakthrough in Sino-Australian military relations was achieved in April when Chinese President Xi Jinping accepted Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s invitation to address the Australian parliament and consider joint military exercises.

Not all nations involved in the search might be thinking about joint military exercises, though – some might even be thinking about possible future military conflicts or how to avoid them.

While coordinated searches of the highly contentious South China Sea went off surprisingly smoothly, the various military forces involved will have now seen quite of a lot of each other’s advanced military hardware in action.

Despite setbacks, the search will likely continue not only because of national and international interests, but also because the families of the passengers and the general public need answers.

Tom Burns is a Melbourne-based writer who studies bioethics and neuroscience. His work has been featured online and in print in Australia and abroad. 

You can follow him on Twitter @tfburns and read his blog at