In Praise of Disaster Diplomacy

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In Praise of Disaster Diplomacy

Militaries in the Asia-Pacific are often called upon for disaster response. They’re also a good form of diplomacy.

Japanese researchers have released the findings of a study suggesting that the risk of an earthquake measuring magnitude 7 or above striking the Tokyo metropolitan area within the next four years could be as high as 70 percent. The last time Tokyo was hit by a major earthquake was in 1923, when a 7.9 magnitude quake killed more than 100,000 people.

Late last year, devastating flash floods killed over 1,200 people in the southern Philippines, while last month, dozens of villagers died and many more are still unaccounted for after a massive landslide in Papua New Guinea.

These events of the past 12 months have underscored the fact that the Asia-Pacific is the most natural disaster prone region in the world, with floods being the most frequent danger, followed by major storms, earthquakes and problems such as avalanches and landslides. Sadly, a combination of population growth, urbanization and climate change will see the number of lives lost through regional disasters rising in the coming years.

That’s why exercises such as the recent Exercise Co-operation Spirit between Australia's defense force and the Chinese military is significant. The disaster relief exercise took place in Sichuan late last year, and involved emergency rescue teams locating and evacuating “casualties” in a fictitious earthquake-ravaged country.

At November’s East Asia Summit in Bali, Australia and Indonesia successfully proposed a plan for better disaster management in the 18 EAS states. That plan envisages countries sharing satellite images, damage and casualty reports after a disaster, relaxing national border controls that might impede the timely delivery of support, creating a register of relief stores and overcoming the problem of legal immunity for foreign emergency workers.

But while aid organizations, governments, donors and local communities are involved in these emergency responses, it is defense forces in the region that often have the necessary capabilities in emergency situations to offer logistical support, medical care, damage assessment, engineering, supplies, communications and imagery. Ultimately, military forces are particularly well-placed to provide life-sustaining assistance quickly.

However, the benefits of deploying militaries extend well beyond the immediate benefits of recue and disaster relief – military assets can also serve broader strategic goals. Defense forces can, for example, assist in advancing their state’s security agenda by building confidence between regional militaries through disaster relief activities. Defense disaster diplomacy might be a good way of looking at it.

Deploying military forces to disaster areas allows a country to test operating procedures and equipment, as well as a chance to compare their capabilities against others. With the purchase of new regional naval amphibious capabilities and additional strategic lift capabilities, regional defense forces will have increased capabilities and capacity for disaster relief missions.

The Australian Navy’s new landing helicopter dock ships, for example, will enter service in 2014 and 2015, and allow more rapid and larger-scale disaster responses. Australia’s newest naval ship HMAS Choules, a former Royal Navy vessel, will be able to assist with humanitarian support in the region leading up to the arrival of the LHDs. Canberra has also announced that it is looking to buy an existing civilian commercial vessel, such as a fast ferry, for disaster response.

China’s navy, meanwhile, has in recent years demonstrated a serious commitment to maritime medical diplomacy with its purpose built hospital ships. But it has yet to make naval health assistance deployments to Southeast Asia or the South Pacific. The Indonesian foreign minister has therefore recently suggested that China be invited to participate in joint disaster response exercises with Indonesia, Australia, Japan, and the United States to encourage a greater sense of common purpose in the region.

If it encourages stability, then it’s an idea worth supporting.

Anthony Bergin is co-author of ‘More than good deeds: Disaster risk management and Australian, Japanese and U.S. defense forces,’ published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.