On March 8, Malaysian Airlines’ night-time flight MH-370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing a little less than an hour after take-off. The Boeing 777-200ER has not been traced since. The plane flew into Vietnamese airspace and is believed to have ended up in the southern Indian Ocean, far from its intended course and direction. This has been determined by technical means, pre-programmed pings shared between the aircraft and an overhead satellite. There was no other source or means of contact between the off-course aircraft and a human being or a man-made object. Human intervention is thought to be the only reason that the aircraft went off course, especially since it did some very strange things prior to vanishing. But that is not the purpose of this effort.
Among the 239 people on board were five Indians and a naturalised Canadian of Indian origin — in total, there were six people with ties to this land. Since a majority of the passengers were Chinese, most of the focus has naturally been on the tragedy that has unfolded there and, for obvious reasons, on the repercussions in Malaysia. When flight MH-370 went missing, India was already in election mode, with most of the attention on the hustings. Whatever little notice was paid to the tragedy quickly evaporated. There is now an opportunity to rectify that error, that lapse of application.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is visiting Australia, the first Indian head of government to do so in 28 years. This visit provides an excellent opportunity to rectify the mistake we made earlier this year. Since MH-370 most likely went missing in the southern Indian Ocean, Australia has been designated as the lead country in the search for the aircraft. After many attempts, the search has now been narrowed down to an area about 60,000 square kilometres large, some 2,000 kilometres west of Perth. Renewed search efforts, with a newly contracted Dutch company, began on October 5. A total of about $ 56 million has been earmarked as the budget for the search, peanuts when human lives are at stake. There is every reason for Modi to offer Indian support and help, manpower as well as material, for the search.
The Indian navy should have been dispatched as soon as it became clear that the flight ended up in the Indian Ocean. Given that it considers the Indian Ocean to be an area of its responsibility and its core concern, it is unacceptable that the navy is not part of the search efforts. The navy is responsible for every Indian citizen on the seas, even those missing for a period of several months. Naval survey ships or any other asset deemed useful should have been dispatched a long while back. There is still time to rectify that mistake. Modi is well advised to offer Indian participation, including financial support, in the search for the missing aircraft and its passengers.
Participation in the search for MH-370 opens up opportunities for India to take its relationship with Australia in the right direction. It has not always been the smoothest of relationships, either on or off the cricket field. Australia was lead shouter in the band that criticised India for its nuclear tests in 1998. It was the shrillest among those who took India to task. But since then, a lot of water has flown down the Ganges and the Murray. India’s realignment of policies, foreign more than security, has considerably reduced the distance between New Delhi and Canberra. This is an opportunity to take things forward by leaps. Though the search operations are likely to be time consuming for the Indian navy, it will be well worth the effort. Especially for the grief-stricken families looking for closure to their trauma. Naval personnel and vessels could be based in Perth or in any other base deemed useful by Australia.
Such naval participation would open up greater opportunities for India to deepen its military relationship with Australia. Since our nuclear tests, there has been a distinct convergence of interests between the two Commonwealth countries. A deeper military engagement will take this relationship to greater heights — there are opportunities to be exploited in every security field. There is scope for greater cooperation as Australia takes steps to tackle the growing terrorist menace within its own population. Terrorism is an international issue seamlessly crossing borders. The two countries should deepen their cooperation in this field, too.
There is much in common between the origins of the three armed forces of India and Australia. Rooted in the same professional culture, they would find it easier to operate together than most other militaries. A successful search mission would pave the way for similar cooperation between the two armies and air forces. Though there is a chance that the search mission may not be successful, an attempt still has to be made. Military ventures take many attempts to achieve success, be it technical or policy-driven. They have to be pursued relentlessly and this is a politically safe step to begin with.
The long-term aim, of course, must be to take the relationship beyond just India and Australia. When the Anglo-American alliance can refer to the Atlantic Ocean as their “pond”, countries of the Indian Ocean with common interests and concerns must strive to do the same vis a vis “our ocean”. It is fairly obvious which countries share common interests and concerns relating to the Indian Ocean. Disruptive and domineering forces have to be kept at bay, be they state or state-sponsored. India and Australia need to take the lead in the creation of an Indian Ocean community, for there is a deep human tragedy that beckons now. A vital strategic stake could well be the future driver for creating this community.
The writer is a BJP MLA and editor of ‘Defence and Security Alert’. Views are personal
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