On Sunday morning, Chinese ships entered Vietnamese territory as part of an international search for a Malaysia Airlines jet missing a day earlier over waters between Vietnam and Malaysia.

“Vietnam allowed two Chinese navy ships to enter Vietnamese waters at noon” (0400 GMT), the deputy chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People’s Army, Lieutenant General Vo Van Tuan, told DPA.

The two countries have put aside diplomatic tensions over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea to search for the Boeing 777—200 jet carrying 239 people of 14 different nationalities, 153 of them from China.

Currently, 17 planes and 35 ships from six different countries are searching the area, the National Search and Rescue Committee said. Of those, five planes, and six ships belong to Vietnam. An unknown number of civilian vessels are also helping.

Malaysian authorities said 22 aircraft and 40 ships were involved, without specifying how many were civilian.

China dispatched two maritime rescue ships and the Philippines — which often spars with China over its maritime territorial claims — deployed three air force planes and three navy patrol ships, news reports said.

The United States also sent the USS Pinckney, an Arleigh Burke—class guided—missile destroyer, to the area.

“Vietnam is co-ordinating the search with other countries well,” Deputy Chairman of the National Search and Rescue Committee, Pham Quy Tieu, told dpa.

“There are no problems or difficulties working together so far between the countries involved. Vietnam has allowed all ships and planes to take part in the searching in Vietnamese territory,” he added.

Yang Chuantang, China’s transport minister, on Saturday said his government was actively coordinating with “maritime rescue authorities and civil aviation administrations in Malaysia and Vietnam,” the official Xinhua news agency said.

Chinese state media have made no mention of the maritime disputes in their reports on the missing plane, despite the high recent profile of the overlapping territorial claims with several countries, including Malaysia and Vietnam.

Xinhua also reported that the “China Coast Guard 3411” vessel reached the main search area on Sunday afternoon, and “contacted two Malaysian ships among the eight” boats it found there, it quoted Chinese maritime officials as saying.

Despite their competing claims to parts of the South China Sea, cooperation on disaster relief and search and rescue is “win—win for everybody”, says defence analyst Professor Carl Thayer from the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“The areas you’re talking about are so vast no country has the resources to do it themselves and in the case of the Malaysia Airlines plane, even though the majority of people are from China all you have to do is see all the other nationalities involved to see other countries have an interest,” he said.

Three of the passengers aboard Flight MH370, including an infant, are believed to be from the United States, but that’s not the only reason the US sent the destroyer, Thayer said.

“One, it’s in the region so the US would respond as a good international citizen anyway. Two, like it responded to the Philippines typhoon, the US is demonstrating that having its presence in the region isn’t just about hard security, it’s also a good thing if a disaster occurs — it can respond quickly and effectively.” The multinational search—and—rescue operation is an example of how the region could cooperate, said Dr Tang Siew Mun, director of Foreign Policy and Security Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur.

“It shows what the region could achieve if everyone has the same objectives,” he said.

“For sure, it can increase the reservoir of goodwill and this is a good foundation to build trust. But, I am pessimistic that this spirit of cooperation will endure for very long,” he added.

While there might be some diplomatic manoeuvring, the first consideration will be humanitarian, Thayer said.

“Basically if you’re out at sea and there’s a disaster, it’s incumbent upon you to assist, it goes without saying,” he said.

“Now those decisions are made, you can imagine people in Beijing and Washington thinking through how to spin this and use it for other purposes as well as the humanitarian one,” he said.

“But I would say before we get down that road, humanitarian is the first concern.”

(This article was published on March 9, 2014)
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