Asia-Pacific eyes coordinated disaster relief work

SINGAPORE – Asia-Pacific powers on Thursday announced an ambitious plan to pool their military and civilian resources for disaster responses in a region beset by cyclones, earthquakes and floods.

The region has been devastated by major natural disasters over the past several years, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the deadly Myanmar cyclone and the large earthquake in China in May.

Foreign ministers of 26 countries and the European Union discussed a joint relief exercise to be held in 2009 and called for civilian-military coordination in future disaster relief.

“It makes a lot of sense to conduct such exercises,” said host Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo. It is important to have “a common vocabulary so that we don’t misunderstand each other when we are in a hurry.”

The ministers gathered for the annual security conference of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its 17 partners. They cover virtually half the world — from the U.S. and EU to Russia and Australia.

Yeo said they also talked about North Korea‘s nuclear program, terrorism, counterterrorism, the border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand as well as problems of food and energy.

Disaster relief however dominated discussions at the five-day conference.

A statement at the end of the meeting said the ministers “recognized that military assets and personnel, in full support and not in place of civilian responses, have played an increasingly important role in regional disaster responses.”

The statement said the ministers endorsed a proposal by the Philippines and the U.S. to conduct a disaster relief exercise in 2009, and that potential sites and dates have been identified.

The ministers also told their officials to develop guidelines for relief cooperation, and to draw up a plan aimed at coordinating training for disaster preparedness among the 27 members.

The plan will also explore the feasibility of deploying military assets to bolster civilian operations, it said.

Yeo said the plan is to establish nodes in various countries and establish procedures governing the use of military resources. There is also talk of having “designated forces on standby readiness.”

“So that countries know that there are resources they can call for,” he said.

However, no aid can be forced on any country. The statement noted that principle to put at ease countries that fear allowing foreign troops, even for relief work, would jeopardize their sovereignty.

Myanmar’s ruling junta refused to allow foreign militaries, including U.S. troops, to provide help after Cyclone Nargis, and faced international criticism for its slow response. More than 84,000 people died.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is attending the conference, slammed Myanmar for refusing the help at first when several countries including the United States were “sitting literally offshore” with ships loaded with aid.

“When you have a situation (with) the junta refusing to let people in need be helped, you wonder how can the international community stand by and allow that to happen,” she said.

Rice praised ASEAN for forcing Myanmar’s doors to open to aid.

In contrast, China moved swiftly when its Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces were jolted by a 7.9 magnitude earthquake that killed 70,000 people and left 18,000 missing in May.

China deployed 130,000 troops, who by this month had repaired more than 9,196 miles of roads, installed 220,000 shelters and relocated more than 1.4 million people, according to the government.

The importance of military operations in disaster relief was made clear after the 2004 tsunami, when the U.S. rushed troops, ships, aid and helicopters to Indonesia, the country hardest hit with more than 160,000 killed in Aceh province.

Taken from:  http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20080724/ap_on_re_as/asia_security;_ylt=AvEW7OIZtHiJyHLGsm5cetVn.3QA

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