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MH370: what we know right now

While authorities are certain the plane went into the sea, they have no idea what actually happened for flight MH370 to change course, says Fairfax correspondent Lindsay Murdoch.

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The missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 Boeing 777 aircraft, with the apparent loss of all passengers and crew, has captivated the world for more than two weeks, as each revelation generates surprising twists and turns in the story of the search.

For Australians, perhaps the biggest surprise has been that so much of the search and recovery efforts are based in Perth. Equally surprising, however, is the amount of international co-operation and collaboration this operation has entailed.

Illustration: Pat Campbell

Illustration: Pat Campbell

Experience in Aceh after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, and elsewhere, has led the Australian Defence Force to place considerable emphasis on collaborative international military exercises.

Sometimes called military diplomacy, it is a means by which members of various countries' defence forces meet, share stories, compare notes and study their contrasting techniques and procedures.

It affords ADF members opportunities to get to know, and become familiar with, members of neighbouring defence forces, and this is increasingly acknowledged as a good thing. Building trust and mutual confidence can help greatly in times of crisis.

Australia has conducted bilateral and multilateral military and inter-agency exercises with a range of countries for many years, with real dividends, notably with US Navy Poseidon and New Zealand Orion aircraft working closely alongside RAAF Orions.

This arrangement can be cobbled together quickly and confidently because of the trusted and tested nature of the relationships, established communication channels, common procedures, language and equipment.

To a large extent there is the same kind of collaborative arrangement in place with Malaysia and Singapore through the five power defence arrangements, involving Australia, Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. The FPDA helps facilitate a wide range of annual air, sea and land exercises that help build trust and a common understanding of military proficiency that can be called on in an emergency, such as the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines plane.

Largely because of the historical quirks behind the origin of the FPDA, Australia's most important neighbour, Indonesia, is not part of the network.

''Manis'' in Indonesian means sweet, and there is a clear case for Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia and Singapore (MANIS) to work together to sweeten regional security co-operation.

A MANIS regional security co-operation forum could address a range of security priorities of mutual concern. There is a pressing need for some creative regional diplomacy to help bring such an arrangement into effect.

Interestingly, China's People's Liberation Army, with its navy and air force, has only participated peripherally so far in the kinds of military exercises that Australia has conducted routinely and intimately with the aforementioned security partners. Perhaps the time has come for China to become more active in such activities, and to feature more prominently on the East Asian international scene?

The search for MH370 points to the clear benefits that could accrue from having established and practiced procedures before undertaking such a risky venture, so far from shore and on the highest and roughest of seas on Earth.

The Roaring Forties have caused shipwrecks for generations. This is exactly where US and Chinese satellite images suggest the presumably ill-fated Malaysian Airlines flight may have splashed down after running out of fuel.

Co-ordinating aircraft belonging to several different countries is a challenge at the best of times, but it is particularly perilous when they are so far from shore, flying at very low altitudes and operating in a narrow flight path.

Incorporating aircraft from other nations such as China, which have not worked closely together with Australian, New Zealand or US aircraft in the past, adds to the level of risk.

This is particularly the case when one considers the greater likelihood of misunderstanding arising because of unfamiliarity with each other's procedures and means of communication.

In the difficult conditions involved in the search for the Malaysian Airlines aircraft, the Australian Maritime Safety Authority and the respective military teams will do their best to facilitate Chinese aircraft participating in the search. But how much safer and better it would be if this was merely another iteration of a well-oiled procedure often practised between these types of aircraft?

In essence, Australia should look to foster closer ties with the MANIS countries while inviting China and the US, among others, to participate as well.

If there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that is the MH370 disaster, it is the pointer to a need for a sweetening of regional security co-operation in the event of other, short-notice disaster response requirements.

Dr John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

Twitter: @JohnBlaxland1