The frantic hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has been, in one way, a nearly-miraculous display of international collaboration: Twenty-six nations, many of them rivals, have opened up their territorial waters and airspace or have contributed closely-held technology and surveillance data to a search that has riveted the world.
But while they have come together, the imperative among participating countries to cloak their technological capacities and weaknesses has proven irresistible, at times hindering the search, military analysts said.
“In South-east Asia and in the wider region, there is no defence forum that enables the sharing of information and capabilities with regard to something on this scale,” said Mr Jon Grevatt, an Asia-Pacific analyst in Bangkok for defence industry consultancy IHS Jane’s.
For example, Indian officials were reluctant to discuss radar data from the Bay of Bengal, which was along one of the plane’s possible paths. This turned out to be because there was not much data — the area was a weak spot in the country’s radar coverage.
A senior Indian military official said the country did not keep “heavy surveillance” capabilities there because it was not a tense area, unlike the country’s northern border with Pakistan.
At the same time, China has also been unwilling to show other nations its raw military radar data, even though some investigators wanted it to help pin down whether the plane had flown north towards Central Asia. Instead, China, like several other countries, simply told Malaysian officials that its radars had not spotted the plane.
“They’ve told us and everybody else, ‘We didn’t see it, period.’ They’re not willing to share the data,” said a Western official who, like others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomatic issues.
One possible explanation is that China wants to hide not only its technological capabilities, but also the limits of this technology, while it grows bolder in asserting itself as a military power, analysts said.
Some Chinese officials said there have, indeed, been tensions during the search, but they blame others. Colonel Dai Xu of the Chinese air force, who is also an author of nationalistic military books, said: “China has made great efforts in this search and rescue operation, showing its maximum sincerity. But unfortunately, not every country is doing that much, because the political trust is not enough.”
Satellite imagery has been among the most guarded and contested information. A former senior United States military officer said images thought to be of plane debris that the Chinese government had released early on — which were later determined to be of unrelated flotsam east of Malaysia — had been “dumbed down” to obscure the true capabilities of the satellites.
On Tuesday, Malaysian Defence Minister and Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein brought up those images after Chinese journalists at a news conference asked about delays in the investigation.
“Can I remind you that we received satellite data from China, regarding sightings in the South China Sea, which made us distract ourselves from the search and rescue to areas that had already been searched?” he said.
A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said at a news conference that although he was cautious about discussing US satellite abilities, “we have been, to the degree we have been able to, sharing satellite imagery with the government of Malaysia to help them in the search”.
As for military radar data, it is not only the Chinese and Indians who have been unwilling to share.
Thailand, for example, waited 10 days to tell Malaysia its military radar had picked up the jetliner heading west towards the Strait of Malacca on the morning of March 8 before it vanished. A Thai air force spokesman said officials “did not pay any attention to it”.
At times, the search has also brought territorial concerns to the fore. Indian military officials denied a request by China to allow four warships to enter a maritime zone in the Bay of Bengal to search for the plane, said a report by the Press Trust of India.
An Indian navy spokesman, Captain D K Sharma, said he had no information about such a request. But he said: “This is our backyard — why would we want anybody else to do our job? We are capable and doing the best possible.”