Sailors from the USS Fort Worth scouring the Java Sea for Indonesia AirAsia Flight QZ8501 prepare launch a Tow Fish side scan sonar. (Reuters Photo/Antonio P. Turretto Ramos)

Diplomacy and Defense Factor in Foreign Aid of AirAsia Hunt


JANUARY 06, 2015

An Indonesia AirAsia flight, QZ8501, flying from Surabaya to Singapore with 162 people on board crashed into the sea. Most of the passengers aboard the Airbus A320-200 jet were Indonesians. No survivors have been found.

Ships and planes have been scouring the Java Sea for the aircraft since it vanished on Dec. 28.

Indonesian and US sailors have recovered various bits of debris, including luggage and the bodies of 37 passengers floating in shallow waters off Borneo, 13 of whom have been identified.

National search and rescue resources, which include civilian agencies and the military, were deployed within hours to locate the plane.

In less than a week, Indonesian officials say they have identified several large pieces of wreckage believed to be from a commercial jet. However, the fuselage and its all-important black box flight recorders remain missing.

Beyond the pressing need to know why this AirAsia flight ended in tragedy is another story — that of the spirit motivating the search and recovery teams, who feel a high moral burden to do their utmost and to locate the crash site and its victims amid trying conditions.

While it is too early to claim success, the work of Indonesia’s solid and well-coordinated search and rescue team is praiseworthy.

The international community has been quick to offer assistance, as well.

Seven countries have already contributed resources to the search and recovery operation.

Singapore’s ministry of defense has said two of its frigates, RSS Supreme and RSS Valour, as well as a landing ship and two C130 airplanes, are participating in the search.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) has also sent an officer to assist in coordinating search efforts; the CAAS has also said Indonesia has accepted its offer of four specialists and two sets of underwater beacon locator detectors to help locate the flight data and voice recorders.

Malaysia’s Defense Ministry has sent one C130 transport plane and three Royal Malaysian Navy ships, the KD Pahang, KD Lekir and KD Lekiu.

Australia has dispatched two AP-3C Orion aircraft with specialized search equipment.

South Korea has similarly sent one P-3C Orion.

The United States has lent help in the form of one of its destroyers, USS Sampson, and the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth.

For its part, China said it is dispatching a navy ship and an air force jet to take part in the search efforts.

Great Britain, France, China and India have also demonstrated their willingness to help Indonesia in its search and recovery operations.

The Indonesian government’s willingness to accept and recognize foreign assistance is surely to its credit, perhaps reflecting lessons learned from Malaysia’s notorious mishandling of the Malaysia Airlines MH370 disappearance — a secondary disaster in its own right .

Indeed, the Indonesian government’s efforts in handling this disaster thus far have actually attracted polite praise from the international community.

The involvement of foreign countries in search and recovery efforts is significant in a number of ways that Indonesia may have to appreciate and acknowledge.

First, this assistance reflects empathy from foreign nations towards Indonesia.

It also reflects an understanding that Indonesia alone cannot handle the vast and technically challenging elements of a search, rescue and recovery operation of this magnitude.

Third, it creates opportunities to facilitate better cooperation and relations, particularly among states who often find themselves competing for geopolitical influence.

Fourth, the international response to the AirAsia disaster reflects a shared responsibility felt by countries who assisting Indonesia — and particularly by Malaysia, France and the US, all of whom have learned from recent aviation accidents.

An important dynamic to consider in assessing the geopolitical significance of foreign assistance is the sensitivity with which Indonesian officials regard the wealth and influence of its partners, who risk creating the impression of acting in such a way that Indonesia cannot refuse their offers of assistance.

The United States, for example, is able to both quickly position the necessary logistic and technical capabilities, such as instruments to locate the black box — which Indonesia presumably lacks — as well as lend top-notch investigative expertise.

China has not confirmed what sort of assistance it may offer, but Indonesia may be wise exercise caution if Malaysia’s experiences from MH370 offers any predictive value. China’s participation in that investigation, at times acrimonious, fielded dozens of ships which were hampered by logistics supply lines stretched thin by a lack of foreign port access arrangements. Several ships were denied access to areas by a suspicious Indian navy.

Most recently, Malaysian officials allege China carried out a cyber attack that managed to steal troves of classified data related to the MH370 investigation.

By permitting joint US and Chinese participation in search and recovery operations, President Joko Widodo is exercising leadership through an active attempt to build stable geopolitical relations between them, as well as benefit from their resources as an integrated part of the search and recovery mission.

The USS Sampson, for its part, has already succeeded in recovering some of the aircraft debris and 12 bodies so far.

Britain, one of whose subjects died in the disaster, may be able to help, as well. It possesses satellite analysis and listening equipment that can detect sonic “pings” from the plane’s flight recorders.

France, the country of origin of QZ8501’s first officer, may lend experts from its air crash investigation agency, the BEA, to assist in underwater search operations.

Their experience in investigating the Air France Flight 447 accident in 2009 may come in handy in the ongoing search for the aircraft.

South Korea, three of whose citizens is also a victim of the AirAsia disaster, is one of most important strategic and economic actor in East Asia and can be of value in helping Indonesia’s search and rescue operations.

Regardless of the actual resources it contributes, Malaysia perhaps offers some of the most useful assistance possible as a Southeast Asian peer with recent experience in this realm.

Like Indonesia, Malaysia performed adequately in the search for MH370 with the limited technical resources at its disposal.

However, Malaysia’s succeeded in assembling a functioning coalition of partners was overshadowed by the historically authoritarian Malaysian government’s stonewalling, as well as its confused and contradictory messages.

While Indonesia has so far been wise to take a page from the Malaysian playbook in accepting international technical assistance, it is yet to be seen whether the lesson of the necessity for transparency have been absorbed by Indonesian authorities.

Just as in the hunt for MH370, search and recovery operations for QZ8501 are complicated by issues of trust surrounding the fact that the foreign assets involved at this point in the mission are military craft operated mostly by military personnel.

Defense diplomacy is also a factor in the decisions to involve military assets in providing better management and coordination of search and recovery operations.

Indonesian Minister for Defense Ryamizard Ryacudu has said he has been in constant communication with his counter parts in Singapore and Malaysia regarding ways their militaries can play a part.

It is also significant that the Indonesian Search and Rescue Agency (Basarnas), is led by a three-star air force marshal.

The cooperative spirit generated from the common efforts to deal with the AirAsia QZ8501 search and recovery mission may turn out to be to everyone’s benefit, overriding preexisting prejudices and breaking down barriers that otherwise might never have been broken down.

Bantarto Bandoro and Rodon Pedrason are lecturers at the Indonesian Defense University’s School of Defense Strategy in Sentul, Bogor.