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An unspoken factor in hunt

- Delhi draws line on access to data
The search continues over the southern Indian Ocean. (AP)

New Delhi, May 22: Malaysia wants original Indian radar data but has been rebuffed.

India and Vietnam have said Chinese ships can’t search in their waters.

China has accused Malaysia of not sharing exact co-ordinates for the search.

Malaysia has said it doesn’t want extensive US investigative help.

Officially, they’re all working together as a grand, multinational team on the same search - for the Malaysia Airlines plane that disappeared on March 8 with 239 people on board.

But deep geopolitical fissures and simmering regional tensions are forcing nations participating in the 27-country search, the largest of its kind ever, to prioritise their strategic and security interests over a speedier hunt.

In key stretches of the Indian Ocean, Andaman Sea and the South China Sea, these fissures have meant that two ships have had to search for the missing plane when four or five from different countries could have performed the task faster.

“There are deep suspicions in the region that are playing out here,” Joshy Paul from the National Maritime Foundation, a maritime security think-tank, told The Telegraph. “And these suspicions are based on real, past experiences.”

India had told Malaysia that it has not found any signature of the missing plane on any of its radars civilian and military -- in the Northeast or in the Bay of Bengal.

But when Malaysia, which is still not giving up on the possibility that the plane may have flown northwest from northern Laos towards Central Asia, asked India for the raw radar data, New Delhi said “no”, officials from both nations confirmed.

“They’ve got to take our word,” an Indian official said. “There’s no way we’re sharing data from our sensitive posts with anyone else.”

The tensions tearing at the multinational search team are even more evident in the seas.

The search for the plane continued in the deep south of the Indian Ocean for a third day today, as planes from Australia, New Zealand and the US try and find two objects spotted by satellite that investigators believe could belong to the plane’s wreckage. A Chinese satellite has spotted an object close to the earlier object that too is now part of the search mandate.

But while the deep, turbid waters and inclement weather are hindering search operations, diplomats, search-and-rescue professionals and analysts say the pursuit in the southern Indian Ocean also has a clear advantage no one country has claims there.

“The fact that the current search area, over 2,000km west of Perth, does not fall in the maritime zone of any nation, ironically, allows for collaboration that you haven’t seen in, say, the Malacca Strait or the northern Indian Ocean,” an Indian diplomat said.

The maritime zone of each nation consists of two broad categories. Each nation has territorial waters that extend up to 12 nautical miles off the coast it enjoys full sovereignty over these waters.

Each country also has an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), which extends 200 nautical miles from the coast. A country does not enjoy sovereignty over the EEZ beyond its territorial waters but it alone can exploit the sea and the seabed economically in this region.

On Friday, India rejected a Chinese request to send in four warships into India’s maritime zone to search the Andaman Sea. China had not specified exact coordinates where it wanted to search, but was keen to search close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

“I’m sure the Chinese wanted to search inside Indian territorial waters (within 12 nautical miles from the coast), that’s why the government refused,” said Commander Sarabjit Singh Parmar, a serving naval officer and a research fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA). “No country would be comfortable allowing another country’s warships that close to its territory.”

India has military bases on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and fears that China could “use legitimate search and rescue operations to also scout Indian assets in the region”, Paul said.

China, too, possibly knew India would reject its request, but needed to show an increasingly frantic public at home 153 of the 239 on board the missing MH370 are Chinese it was doing all it could to find the plane, Parmar said.

“I think the Chinese request was probably more an exercise aimed at its domestic audience,” Parmar said.

But the Chinese have fears of their own.

The 10-day long search in the South China Sea, where China is locked in territorial disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines nations that are also part of the search operations that preceded the shift near Australia, triggered jitters in Beijing.

A US warship -- the Kidd had reasons legitimate in the public eye to snuggle up close to China’s territorial waters, and American, Indonesian and Malaysian planes and choppers were hovering on the edge of Chinese airspace.

If the search in the southern Indian Ocean fails to throw up any debris from the plane, Chinese officials said they would have to restart search operations nearer to their own coast with ever-increasing domestic pressure to let other nations help.

“As things get more desperate, it will become harder to explain strategic affairs and diplomacy to people waiting for their loved ones in Shanghai and Beijing,” a Chinese diplomat said. “We’ll be under pressure to let other nations search in our waters, and we fear that’s exactly the opportunity our rivals may be waiting for.”

That fear has pushed China into repeated criticism of the Malaysian government’s handling of the crisis, and fuelled questions from Beijing over Kuala Lumpur’s transparency in sharing search details.

Malaysia, in turn, has told the US that it wants the FBI to assist in investigations into possible causes for the plane’s disappearance but only from the margins, as and when asked by Kuala Lumpur. It turned down an offer from the US to send a large FBI team to Kuala Lumpur.

The distrust stems, at least in part, from the region’s history.

It was in previous search-and-rescue or anti-piracy operations that China laid claim to islands and reefs in the South and East China Sea that Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam had for long considered their territory.

“There is a precedent, and that’s why everyone is probably a lot more cautious with China than with any other country,” Paul said.

Malaysia is currently ruled by a regime historically cautious about trusting the US. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is close to Mahathir Mohammed, the former leader who was Prime Minister for 22 years and often took strident anti-west positions.

But national egos also kick in during such multinational searches, experts said.

For India to accept China’s offer to send warships, or for Malaysia to acquiesce to greater American assistance in investigations, would be tantamount to accepting their own limitations in hunting for the plane or probing its disappearance.

“Everyone can do with help,” Paul said. “But unless they’re pushed to a corner, no nation wants to accept that it needs help.”


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