The heartbreaking plea of a Chinese woman camped out in the airport in Kuala Lumpur with no word on the fate of her son was unbearable to watch. Amidst all the human wreckage of this tragedy, regardless of what we learn about the flight path and the cause of the airplane’s mysterious disappearance, there is a reminder about why nations need each other.
Today China and Japan, along with Britain, are joining the search off Australia’s west coast to see if satellite images of debris can be matched to actual airplane debris. For those who watch Sino-Japanese relations, this is particularly ironic given the ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
American defense and foreign policy analysts have been trying to stave off any military engagements between China and Japan as both periodically have put coast guard ships or naval assets in the region to prove ownership of the islands. But now we have a joint effort underway with both countries participating in a massive search.
International relations create strange bedfellows. The passengers on Flight #370 hailed from over a dozen different countries. Trapped within one aircraft, buckled into seats near one another, their fates became intertwined as did the search to find them. Twenty-five nations have participated in the maritime and aviation mission to find the aircraft. There is an international coalition of the willing listening for the pings of the black box before battery power ends all hope of hearing the conversation inside the cockpit. The United States and China with Australia find themselves in the same area of the ocean sharing satellite imagery and technology that we fight about on the ground. Typically, we race each other to prove technological prowess. Here we find ourselves needing each other.
International cooperation has clearly not been seamless. The Malaysians were off-script with the U.S. from the very start of the incident, with Malaysian information trickling out in fragments that often proved erroneous. Chinese state television ran satellite images that turned out to have nothing to do with the airplane in question. After nearly two weeks of silence, President Barack Obama finally addressed the incident with a public plea to share information and make the search effort a “priority.” It has been rocky to say the least. The Australians have not yet proved that the debris spotted by overhead satellite imagery is the actual plane.
But despite international strains at the start, the final outcome will be heavily reliant on shared data, FBI reviews of Malaysian software, Australian ships moving next to planes and ships with other foreign flags and a host of exchanges of delicate and sensitive material, and perhaps even classified information.
Intelligence and military maneuvers are often not associated in the public mind with mutual interests. We fight for dominance on the battlefield. Yet the truth is that nations need each other to prevent, resolve, defend and solve problems. We have to train together, exercise together and work together when we get in a jam. Indeed, it is often only in space and in oceans that we see signs of international cooperation. Left stranded on the international space station, astronauts put national tensions aside and work together. Lost at sea, nations have no choice but to band together to fight piracy or accidents. Sometimes on land we cooperate but the borders are heavily demarcated and the temptation remains to argue over passports, visas, troops, and all the human traffic that restricts collaboration.
Grief, however, is universal. Let’s hope that the outcome of this horrific and horrendous tragedy is that nations will put aside differences and find common solutions to shared problems. It may be a very slight silver lining in an otherwise dismally dark cloud, but it could prove that philosopher John Donne was right in that “no man (nor woman, I would add) is an island…we are all part of the continent, a part of the main.”
Tara Sonenshine is distinguished fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.