Beijing: The frantic hunt for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has been, in one way, a nearly miraculous display of international collaboration: Twenty-six nations, many of them rivals, have opened up their territorial waters and airspace or have contributed closely held technology and surveillance data to a search that has riveted the world.
That extraordinary cooperation has been instrumental in narrowing the search to a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean this week. But the effort has also underscored the limits of trust among powers like China, Malaysia, the United States, India and Thailand, all of which bring their own, often competing, strategic interests to bear.
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Mass of debris is 'clearly aircraft wreckage'
Aviation expert Geoffrey Thomas is confident the satellite photo of more than 120 pieces of floating debris is missing flight MH370 and suggests a revealing hijacking theory.
The instruments of the search - advanced radar and satellite arrays, banks of intelligence analysts, surveillance planes and ships - are also the tools of spycraft. And as they have come together, the imperative among participating countries to cloak their technological capacities and weaknesses has proved irresistible, at times hindering the search, military analysts say.
"In Southeast Asia and in the wider region, there is no defence forum that enables the sharing of information and capabilities with regards to something on this scale," said Jon Grevatt, an Asia-Pacific analyst in Bangkok for IHS Jane's, a defence industry consultancy. "These countries have tried before to get to a situation in which they are sharing military technologies at a higher level than they are now. They have tried, but it hasn't really happened. It's further evidence of the continuing mistrust or lack of confidence in each other."
For example, Indian officials were reluctant to discuss radar data from the Bay of Bengal, along one of the plane's possible paths. That turned out to be because there was not much data - the area was a weak spot in the country's radar coverage. In an interview, a senior Indian military official said India did not keep "heavy surveillance" capabilities there because it was not a tense area, unlike the country's northern border with Pakistan. It would have been possible to miss the jet at night, he said.
The sharpest tensions have arisen between China and Malaysia. Chinese officials have denounced Malaysia for its reluctance to share information about the search. Most of the 239 people on board the flight were Chinese.
At the same time, China has also been unwilling to show other nations its raw military radar data, even though some investigators wanted to see it to help pin down whether the plane flew north, toward Central Asia. Instead, China, like several other countries, simply told Malaysian officials that its radars had not spotted the plane.
"They won't share radar data," said one Western official here who, like others in this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate diplomatic issues. "They've told us and everybody else, 'We didn't see it, period.' They're not willing to share the data."
One possible explanation is that China wants to hide not only its technological capabilities, but also the limits of that technology, even as it has grown bolder in asserting itself as a military power, analysts say.
Some Chinese officials say there have indeed been tensions during the search, but blame others. Colonel Dai Xu of the Chinese air force, an author of nationalistic military books, said: "China has made great efforts in this search and rescue operation, showing its maximum sincerity. But unfortunately, not every country is doing that much, because the political trust is not enough."
Satellite imagery has been among the most guarded and contested information.
A former senior US military officer said that images thought to be of plane debris that the Chinese government released early on - and later determined to be of unrelated flotsam east of Malaysia - had been "dumbed down" to obscure the satellites' true capabilities.
I'm confident that the Chinese sat pics early on were deliberately fuzzed up to prevent revealing true resolution.
A former US military aviator with business interests in Asia echoed that thought. "I'm confident that the Chinese sat pics early on were deliberately fuzzed up to prevent revealing true resolution," he said.
On Tuesday, the Malaysian defence minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, brought up the subject of those images after Chinese journalists, at a news conference, asked about delays in the investigation.
"Can I also remind you that we received satellite data from China, regarding sightings in the South China Sea, which made us distract ourselves from the search and rescue to search areas that had already been searched?" the minister said.
The former US military officer said it was virtually certain that the Chinese would not share their highest-resolution satellite imagery with anyone, much less the United States or Malaysia, even in a worldwide investigation like this. But he said that the United States, which has the one of the largest collections of spy satellites, would not either.
A Pentagon spokesman, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said at a news conference that although he was leery of discussing US satellite abilities, "we have been, to the degree we have been able to, sharing satellite imagery with the government of Malaysia to help them in the search''.
As for military radar data, it is not just the Chinese and Indians who have been unwilling to share.
One of the biggest questions still haunting the search is why Malaysia did not announce until one week after the plane's disappearance that its military radar had spotted the jet flying west, away from the patch of South China Sea where the initial international search efforts were concentrated.
The former US military aviator said Malaysian officials generally wanted to hide the abilities of their radars at Butterworth, on the west coast. But some analysts say Malaysian leaders might have feared that the announcement would reveal ineptitude by the military, since it would appear that crew members watching the radar had failed at their jobs. Malaysian officials said the military had not been alarmed by the unidentified plane on its radar because it did not pose a threat.
In another example, Thailand waited 10 days - the most critical stretch of the search - to tell Malaysia that its military radar had picked up the jetliner heading west toward the Strait of Malacca the morning of March 8, when it vanished. A Thai air force spokesman has said officials "did not pay any attention to it''.
At times, the search has also brought territorial concerns to the fore.
Indian military officials denied a request by China to allow four warships to enter an Indian maritime zone in the Bay of Bengal to help search for the plane, according to a report by the Press Trust of India, the largest Indian news agency. The report said that the officials had raised objections on the grounds that Indian military assets in the area were "mainly to guard against China, and these could get exposed if the Chinese warships are allowed in''. China was told that the Indian navy and air force were already conducting a search and did not need outside help.
An Indian navy spokesman, Captain D.K. Sharma, said in an interview that he had no information about any such request. But he said: "This is our backyard - why would we want anybody else to do our job? We are capable and doing the best possible."
The New York Times