MH 370: Of Things We Know Naught

(Dampening the Credibility of China’s ‘Anti-Access Area Denial’ Strategy)


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published in the author’s monthly column The Strategist on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website

The mystery of the missing Malaysian Airlines MH 370, code sharing with China Southern Airlines CZ 748, bound from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, continues to confound and baffle in the fundamentals of the episode. Was it a sudden and nameless catastrophic end to an ill fated flight or was it a failure of surveillance that led to a controlled and purposeful disappearance of a marked commercial carrier?

Look at the facts; the last reported position of the aircraft was on 08 March 2014 at 01:19 hours (local time Malaysia) in the Gulf of Thailand at its first navigational way point IGARI, about 500 kilometres (kms) north east of Kuala Lumpur at an altitude of 35,000 feet cruising at 872 km/h well on its predetermined route to Beijing. This account was immediately followed by loss of all communications and a possible disabling of the secondary radar (transponder). MH 370 was now less than 200 kilometres from the Vietnamese coast with orders to call up Ho Chi Min city Air Traffic Control (ATC). Normal procedures demand a positive overlap when control passes from one ATC to another; this would appear not to have occurred which in itself ought to have rung some alarm bells particularly in a dense airspace which accounts for nearly 16% of global traffic (see Map 1; authors research suggests that there were at least 25 aircrafts on international transit within 500 kms of MH 370 at that instant).











Map 1:  Intended Flight Path of MH370 (CZ748) and last known position.                   Source:  

Leaving aside the initial bungling by Malaysian aviation authorities; conspiracy theories abound, from a terrorist attack to a suicidal cockpit to a US sponsored clandestine seizure and strike to prevent high security cargo from falling into Chinese hands. However, more significant to our narrative is the response of China’s most recent Flight Information Region (FIR) Centre at Sanya and its integration into that nation’s Air Defence network. The Sanya FIR (in Hainan) is responsible for managing traffic and maintaining continuous surveillance over the South China Sea. Its formal area of responsibility is a sea space of 280,000 square kilometres which approximates a square of 530 kms sides or a circle of diameter 600 kms extending into the South China Sea. While China’s claim to sovereignty over the entire South China Sea does not include the Gulf of Thailand; the last reported position of MH 370 was within 500 kms of its claimed territorial sea and about 1200 kms from Hainan. Also, had the flight stuck to its planned route, it would have over flown Vietnam and entered Chinese “airspace” in the Sanya FIR by 0215 hrs; it did not and therefore the question arises why was Sanya Air Control Centre at such a run down state of alert and the Chinese Air Defense organisation wanting in alacrity or in a heightened state of readiness? Given the current imbroglio in the South China Sea, the state of air surveillance it may be assumed, would have demanded early tracking and far more credible situational awareness. And a consideration that cannot be lost sight of is the fact that Hainan is home to the Chinese South Sea Naval Fleet at Beihai and houses its strategic ballistic missile submarine force at Yulin; which must play some part in assuring domain wakefulness.


Map 2: Track of MH 370 from take off to 1h 34m into flight                                                     Source: www.malaysiaairline.comMH370 and

At 0215 hrs comes a positive pick up of MH 370 by Malaysian military radar fixing the aircraft 320 kms North West of Penang at 12000 feet altitude on a westerly heading; having deviated 500 kilometres west of its intended track (see Map 2). This information had to have been passed to Sanya FIR since the aircraft was bound for Beijing. Two possibilities emerge; both the entire air space management organisation and air defence network in China were in deep slumber or our own appreciation of China’s Air Defence Surveillance is flawed. They just do not seem to have the essential surveillance capability, after all an overdue aircraft whether overdue at destination or any of its waypoints is no trifling matter from both the safety and security perspective.

China today is transiting through the three accepted strategic phases of great power status; from volume trade through resource grabbing economic expansion to a security dominated and status-quo challenging entity. Admittedly, this principle is simplistic in form and motivation. Yet it captures the essence of how nations in their quest to make possible enhanced economic development through means that have a unidimensional focus have generated anxieties in the environment. This air of disquiet amongst states in turn morphs into fear and suspicion. Contemporary China fits well into this mould.

To the astute military analyst the 370 incident places the edifice of China’s Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) Strategy, upon which is predicated the emergence of the People’s Liberation Army as a major player in the Asia Pacific region, as some what less than persuasive. The strategy is based on the marriage of the Dong-Feng 21D anti surface ballistic missile as the “aircraft carrier killer” with matching surveillance capability that could detect and target hostile aircraft carriers at ranges in excess of 2000 kilometres. Critically the kill chain begins with detection of the Carrier’s flight operations. The entire episode must also have come as a dampener to the heady mixture of Chinese nationalism, its new found wealth and its urge to upset the status-quo that animates what may be called the ‘China Arrival’.

If China touts the A2AD strategy as its existential future, it is clear that the credibility of such a scheme has taken a hammering. In defence, China’s planners may argue that they had not brought to bear the full weight of their military surveillance capability for security reasons; but this contention does not hold very much water for two reasons; firstly by 09 March Chinese remote sensing satellites had been deployed with considerable operational alacrity (if not precision) to join the search effort and secondly the A2AD strategy is, to all intents and purpose, a deterrent strategy and under the circumstance conditions were ideal to demonstrate its surveillance competence. In the event its satellite reported possible debris of the ill-fated aircraft within 90 kms south of Vietnam’s Tho Chu Island about 150 kms north of the last known position reported at 0130 hrs on 08 March. The search centre moved to this new position; however the deployed scouts drew a blank. The fresh datum for the search served to  dilute international exertions which only regrouped after an analysis of satellite communications doppler shift  to concentrate efforts 9 days later in the south Indian Ocean about 6000 kms. southwest of the of the first report.

The search for the remains of the hapless MH370 continues. Meanwhile China’s quest for an existential strategy as a prelude to confronting the status-quo is convincing nobody.

Nuclear Security Summit 2014: The Penitent Preachers


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

 This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website

Keywords: Nuclear Security Summit 2014, United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540, Nuclear Black Market, Prague Declaration

The Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) has a singular sweeping aim: to prevent nuclear terrorism around the globe. The third of the series, which began in 2010 as a sequel to President Obama’s 2009 Prague declaration, has proclaimed an incontestable three- pronged strategy:

  • Reduce the amount of dangerous nuclear material around the world.
  • Improve security of all nuclear material and radio active sources.
  • Improve international cooperation.

Since nuclear terrorism is largely related to the ready and, at times, willing sale of nuclear material, it is ironic that the Netherlands, which is the venue for the third and penultimate summit, is also the nation that was at the centre of the nuclear black market for the closing three decades of the last century. The Dutch nuclear industry was the font of the AQ Khan illicit nuclear bazaar. The fact that the metallurgist Henk Slebos, considered the most notorious of Khan’s confederates, was charged and convicted for smuggling nuclear material and technologies to Pakistan served only four months in jail is suggestive of gravitas attached to the initiative and indeed the conviction to fight nuclear terrorism (see IISS strategic dossier on nuclear black markets, 2007). The light sentence given to other collaborating entities and personnel in Germany, Switzerland, the UK, Japan, Malaysia and Turkey hardly constitutes a credible deterrent to future networks.

Pakistan is no exception, for, observing that Khan’s foreign accomplices remain free and the nuclear world having placed commerce above security, he on political grounds remains free too. The ambivalent approach that has so far been apparent on nuclear proliferation has prompted some cynics to even suggest that the policy to set-a-thief-to-catch-one does not quite work! But this would trivialize the dangers that nuclear terrorism actually present, which President Obama, in his now celebrated Prague speech, so eloquently beseeched the world to recognize, as the “most immediate and extreme threat posed to global security”. He announced an international effort to secure vulnerable nuclear material and vowed to break up international nuclear black markets, detect and intercept unlawful nuclear material in transit and to use financial tools to disrupt illicit nuclear trade. This declaration translated to the Nuclear Security Summit.

The first summit of 2010 held in Washington formulated the “Washington Work Plan” which proposed that the participating states make a commitment to voluntarily implement the Plan consistent with and without prejudice to national laws. It took a non-binding, volitional and uncompelling approach. The Plan tendered the following twelve proposals before the 43 participating states and three organisations:

  •       Reaffirm the fundamental responsibility of States, consistent with their respective       international obligations.
  •       Call on States to work cooperatively.
  •       Recognize that highly enriched uranium and separated plutonium require special       precautions.
  •       Endeavour to fully implement all existing nuclear security commitments and work       toward acceding to those not yet joined.
  •       Support the objectives of international nuclear security instruments.
  •       Reaffirm the essential role of the International Atomic Energy Agency in the                 international nuclear security framework.
  •       Recognize the role and contributions of the United Nations.
  •       Acknowledge the need for capacity building for nuclear security and cooperation      at bilateral, regional and multilateral levels.
  •       Recognize the need for cooperation among States to effectively prevent and               respond to incidents of illicit nuclear trafficking.
  •       Recognize the continuing role of nuclear industry in nuclear security.
  •       Support the implementation of strong nuclear security practices.
  •       Recognize that measures contributing to nuclear material security have value in         relation to the security of radioactive substances also.

The second edition of the Summit was held in Seoul, South Korea. 53 heads of State attended along with four other international organisations. It built on the objectives of the Washington Work Plan and concentrated on Cooperative measures to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism, protection of nuclear materials and related facilities and prevention of illicit trafficking of nuclear materials. It set about defining specific actions to be taken by states on a non mandatory basis. Three issues stand out in the joint communiqué that was released at the end of the Summit:

  •       Time lines were put out for progressing nuclear security objectives.
  •       Nuclear security and safety were to be managed without prejudice or jeopardy         to the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
  •       Radiological terrorism was to be the subject of more rigorous preventive                     measures.

Clearly, while the outcome of the Washington Summit was long on hope and a little economical on precision which Seoul sought to remedy, neither summit could obligate conformance to the declarations.

Now what of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1540 which was adopted in 2004 and is universal in scope, mandatory in application and recognises non-state proliferation as a threat to global peace and obliges states to modify their internal legislation? Resolution 1540 was adopted by the UNSCR not just in response to the discovery of the Abdul Qadeer Khan proliferation network but also with the aim of preventing the acquisition of nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological weapons by terrorist groups and non-state actors. Besides, it is obligatory for all UN members, whether or not they support its aims. The Resolution is a significant evolution in the history of the UN for it attempted to reconcile individual sovereignty with the needs of global security. It has faced considerable flak because many states have criticised the resolution for being cumbersome and ill-adapted to their situations. The objection is to interference by the UN in individual states’ national sovereignty, in that it obliges member states to make internal legislative changes. Opposition is also to the belief that the 15 member Council had a mandate to usurp control and stewardship of global proliferation. And yet it is abundantly clear that if action is to be taken to combat nuclear terrorism then global coordination and regulation is necessary and the only entity that is acceptable and best positioned to undertake it is the UN.

The question that now begs an answer is why then the Nuclear Security Summit? Is it not duplicating, diluting and eroding the efforts of UNSCR 1540? In balance the Summit; a one Man’s vision which has gained some traction because of its non-obligatory appeal to the ‘enlightened self interest’ of its participants (measures such as creating particularised centres of excellence and internal regulatory bodies) and yet unattractive to some due to its origins, badgering nature and without a conviction of longevity (the next summit in 2016 is the last of the series almost as if a deadline has been drawn). On the other hand is UNSCR 1540 which addresses the same issues of the Summit and has similar if enlarged objectives; in addition it is mandatory and has international legality but lacks popularity because it is seen to imply a compact with America’s war on terror. The awkward paradox is that both Summit and UNSCR 1540 are in the same boat but wearing out each others exertions!

Perhaps ‘Penitent Preachers’ will find the endeavour far more focussed and rewarding if the Summit made support to and promotion of UNSCR 1540 the single point in the agenda for its final edition in 2016.

To Lift the Painted Veil: Transparency in Nuclear Policy as the first step towards Deterrent Stability

By Vice Admiral (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

 This article was first published in the author’s monthly column on the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies website

Lift not the painted veil which those who live call

life: ….(for) behind lurks Fear and Hope.

                                                                                    – Percy Bysshe Shelley

The Cold War Mantra

In September 1950, responding to a directive from the President of the USA to reexamine objectives in peace and war with the emergence of the nuclear weapons capability of the Soviet Union, the Secretaries of Defense and State tabled a report titled NSC-68. This report was, in general terms, to become the mantra that guided world order till the end of the Cold War and in particular formed the source that defined and drove doctrines for the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. As a founding policy document of contemporary world order the memorandum contrasted the fundamental design of the Authoritarian State with that of the Free State. Briefly put, the coming clash was seen as a life and death struggle between the powers of ‘evil’ with that of ‘perfection’.

NSC-68 came at a time when the previous 35 years had witnessed some of the most cataclysmic events that history was subjected to; two devastating World Wars, two revolutions that mocked the global status quo (Russia and China), collapse of 5 empires and the decline and degeneration of two imperial powers. The dynamics that brought about these changes also wrought drastic transformation in power distribution with the elements of influence, weight and the means of mass nuclear destruction having decisively gravitated to the USA and the USSR. The belief that the USSR was motivated by a fanatic communist faith antithetical to that of the West and driven by ambitions of world domination provided the logic and a verdict that conflict and violence would become endemic. And thus was presented to the world a choice to either watch helplessly the end of civilization or take sides in a “just cause” to confront the possibility of Armageddon. World order rested upon a division along ideological lines, and more importantly to our study, the formulation of a self fulfilling logic for the use of nuclear weapons. The 1950s naissance of a nuclear theology was consequently cast in the mould of armed rivalry; its nature was characterized by friction and probing peripheral conflicts. The scheme that carved the world was Containment versus burgeoning Communism. In turn rationality gave way to the threat of catastrophic force as the basis of stability.

The Quest for a New Paradigm

Crumbling of the Soviet Union in the last decade of the twentieth century and the end of the Cold War killed this paradigm. In its wake, scholarly works suggested the emergence of one world and an end to the turbulent history of man’s ideological evolution. Some saw the emergence of a multi polar order and the arrival of China. Yet others saw in the First Iraq War, the continuing war in the Levant, the admission of former Soviet satellite nations into NATO and the splintering of Yugoslavia an emerging clash of civilizations marked by violent discord shaped by cultural and civilizational similitude. However, these illusions within a decade were dispelled and found little use in understanding and coming to grips with the realities of the post Cold War world as each of them represented a candour of its own. The paradigm of the day (if there is one) is the tensions of the multi polar; the tyranny of economics; the anarchy of expectations; and a polarization along religio-cultural lines all compacted in the cauldron of globalization in a state of continuous technology agitation.

China’s Two Faced Nuclear Policy

Uncertainties of contemporary times, rise of the irrational and the multilateral nature of nuclear relationships only served to enhance the role of nuclear weapons. What it did was to blur the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons at the same time it provided a warped incentive in asymmetric situations for the lesser State to reach first for the nuclear trigger. In dealing with 4th generation threats it underscored the significance of strategic non-nuclear weapons in adding pre-emptive teeth to a deterrent relationship.

The current situation has not left the Indian situation unimpaired. The two faced nature of the Sino-Pak nuclear relationship has put pressure on the No First Use (NFU) doctrine that that has shaped India’s policy and indeed its arsenal. For China’s stated NFU policy hides the First Use intent of Pakistan that the former has so assiduously nurtured. Forgetting the actuality of an enfeebled Pakistan civilian leadership incapable of action to remove the military finger from the nuclear trigger; the active involvement of non-state actors in military strategy and an alarming posture of an intention-to-use have the makings of a global nuclear nightmare. The Pak proxy gives to China doctrinal flexibility, it unfortunately also makes the severance of the Nuclear from the Conventional a thorny proposition that even China must know can boomerang on its aspirations.

Deterrent Stability: the First Step Transparency

We note thus far that nuclear relations in the region have been bedeviled by a persistent effort to combat the monsters that shrouds of covertness and perilous liaisons have cast; it has left us the unenviable task of, once again, permitting rationality to give way to the threat of catastrophic force as the basis of stability. It is time we saw the dangers of an Armageddon and embrace the opportunity that transparency presents as a first step towards deterrent stability and in the process to lift the precarious veil that is edging the Indo-Sino-Pak nuclear correlation to the precipice.