The tale of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 evolves by the minute. Most likely it will have changed yet again by the time you finish reading this. But whatever the ultimate solution to the puzzle may be, it is not too early to start asking what it means.
Here are the facts as we understand them at the moment. On March 8, a plane en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing. There was no indication that anything untoward was happening before it stopped communicating with air traffic controllers. Shortly after it went silent, it began to deviate dramatically from its preprogrammed flight path -- again, with no indication of trouble. The plane managed to cross the Malay Peninsula and head into the Strait of Malacca without attracting any attention before it disappeared from radar entirely. According to the British firm Inmarsat, the plane was still airborne somewhere along a giant arc stretching from the southeastern Indian Ocean to Kazakhstan more than seven hours after departing from Kuala Lumpur.
One clear lesson, as Jessica Trisko Darden, an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, has recently argued, is that the countries of Southeast Asia are incapable of monitoring, let alone controlling, their airspace. They are also poor at mounting a swift, coordinated response to disaster. They excel, however, at blaming each other. This should raise eyebrows in Washington as the United States “pivots” to Asia. Their response illustrates that any cordiality among players in the region is but a thin veneer. It also calls into question the competence and reliability of the very states on which the United States would depend in the event of a serious confrontation with China. Perhaps even more ominously, China’s eagerness to outperform the United States in finding the missing plane would appear to have unseemly geopolitical overtones. It may even reflect Beijing’s sensitivity to domestic legitimacy, in view of the fact that most of the passengers aboard MH370 were Chinese nationals.