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Now that real public money is about to be spent on the search for MH370 by the Australian Government those who cry ‘Why?’, ‘How much?’ and ‘How long?’ are in for some ‘shocking’ answers.

There is no limit as to how much it could cost or last, as that depends on an agreement at some time in the future to ‘give up’ by the three principal parties involved or for Australia to variously renounce or be released from its obligations.

Those parties are Australia, on the basis that the search is within its Search and Rescue Region or SRR, Malaysia, on the basis that it is responsible for leading or delegating the investigation of a Malaysia registered airliner loss, and China, because it says so.

Australia’s obligations are not limited specifically by time nor money, and are cumulatively based on its being a signatory to the Convention on International Civil Aviation, 1944; the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974; and the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979.

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These conventions draw upon in various strengths the long standing and universal acceptance of what is known as ‘the law of the sea’ which in turn gave rise to the codified UN convention of the same name, which was negotiated over many years but is often quoted as having taken its current day form from 1994.

None of these conventions envisaged the exact circumstances of the loss of MH370, however the very first was framed in a world in which aircraft did routinely disappear without trace, into seas, jungles, or places unknown, and in some cases into glaciers which have in the fullness of time and assisted by climate change, given up fragments of metal, bone, dried muscle tissue, cargo and personal effects, into a time so far removed from the accident that the victims, their circumstances, and their grieving families, have all been forgotten or themselves passed away.

Australia's Search and Rescue zone, from Christmas Island to Antarctica

Malaysia is the sovereign state responsible for investigating the loss of one of its own airliners. States occasionally delegate such investigations to other states or authorities, and almost always engage a wide range of investigative authorities such as the European, UK and US safety investigators, as well as makers of related equipment, such as Inmarsat, Rolls-Royce, and Boeing.  Malaysia has kept control of the loss investigation and the parallel criminal inquiries, into the background and connections of the 239 people who were on board the Malaysia Airlines 777-200ER  that left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing on 8 March.

China made itself a third party by its immediate deployment of at least one dozen military vessels, some equipped with helicopters, on a ‘coming ready or not basis’, in that it sent ships into the zone in the same time frame that US intelligence sources in Washington DC were telling the media that the flight had come down some 1600-1800 kms to sea from Perth.

There were 153 China nationals on board MH370, which flew as a code share with China Southern.  China was vocally unhappy with the Malaysia conduct of the search from about day three, and its ambassador in Kuala Lumpur often sat directly in front of the Malaysia officials at media briefings and was routinely accompanied into the room by a very large contingent of China state media organisations attending those sessions.

In the three nation negotiations in Canberra in which Australia, China and Malaysia agreed on the broad outlines of the continuing search, China made it abundantly and publicly clear that it insisted that the search will continue until there is a result.

In the cultural values of China, ‘until’ can mean ‘forever’. The definitions of historic time are quite different to the less permanent valuations of time in other cultures.

The Federal Budget provides for spending of up to $89.9 million on the Australian coordinated search for MH370, which has since been broken down into a provision for $60 million for a contact now out for tender, for a private operator to manage the included hire of  at least two deep sea towed side scanning sonar devices to scour the Indian Ocean sea floor at a depth of 6000 metres or more along a corridor 800 kms long by 70 kms wide for wreckage from the jet.

That search could take one to two years, or a day, and the terms in the event of premature success are not known.

The $60 million appears to include a private bathymetric mapping of the ocean floor, although China’s navy has already started work with one of its oceanographic vessels the Zhu Kehzen, which returned to port recently with a mechanical issue.

The balance of the $89.9 million is for direct additional costs to Australia in manpower and some assets.

When the PM was questioned in April as to the costs of the first stage of the search, which involved many other states, including Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, the UK and the US,  he described the costs as being sunk (!) in that the fixed capital costs of equipment and personnel were the same whether they were being used for search and rescue purposes or on standby.

The additional costs, in fuel and wages, were not significant.

This argument has been used in the past to defuse populist criticism of the costs of rescuing around the world mariners from yachts in distress in the Southern Ocean, such as that of Tony Bullimore in 1996, as it has been for rescuing lost bushwalkers in Australia, or several people from a disabled vessel off Port Macquarie overnight.

The majority of the expenses involved have to be paid whether the Search and Rescue assets and personnel are used or not.

Australia is seeking a contribution to the $89.9 million in total that is budgeted for the MH370 search in the FY15 accounts and forward estimates, but this isn’t enforceable and perhaps not even likely other than for the up to $60 million for the contractor for the next phase use of private deep sea search equipment.

Malaysia and China are also spending their money on their search assets, and their excess over fixed capital costs of the assets and upkeep is likely to be of a similar order to Australia’s.

In terms of dividing up the $60 million, Australia clearly has a case. As the responsible state with the search and rescue obligation, it might persuade China and Malaysia to divide between them half the cost of hiring and using that equipment or kicking in $15 million each.

This phase of the search is due to begin in August, once the bathymetric surveys begin producing detailed sea floor maps.

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