Washington: After much debate, Asia is finally expected to agree to hold its first civilian-military disaster relief exercise with key powers such as the US, Russia and the European Union (EU).
It will set the stage for real emergency response to disasters such as the recent cyclone that ravaged Myanmar and left 138,000 dead or missing as its ruling military junta came under strong criticism for blocking aid efforts.
An upcoming ministerial meeting in Singapore of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Regional Forum, Asia’s top security forum, may agree to hold the disaster relief exercise among its 27 member-nations as early as 2009, a US official said.
Senior officials of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) agreed in May to conduct such an exercise that could pave the way for militaries of Asean, China, India, the US, Russia and the EU member-states to help coordinate a disaster relief response.
“So, I hope that at this meeting, we can move that to the next stage — to the point it is agreed and planning begins so that it could actually happen as early as next year,” US envoy to Asean, Scot Marciel, said. “I know next year sounds like a long time away but in the ARF world, it takes a while to have consensus on everything,” he said.
Asked whether the ARF foreign ministers would endorse the plan at their 24 July talks in Singapore, Marciel said, “I think it is a good possibility.”
Disaster relief had been a hot topic in ARF since a tsunami swept through the region in December 2004, killing 220,000 people in a dozen countries.
The US, Japan, Australia and India forged a loose coalition to help coordinate relief to victims of the tsunami, triggered by an undersea earthquake that struck off Indonesia.
US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is expected to attend the ARF ministerial talks after skipping the annual gathering in Manila last year, an Asean diplomat said.
Aside from the Asean states of Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, ARF comprises India, Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, the EU, Japan, the Koreas, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Russia, Sri Lanka and the US.
ARF, the principal official forum for security dialogue in Asia, adopted a set of guidelines for disaster relief cooperation at the Manila talks last year.
Marciel cautioned that certain “technical issues may get into the way” of a swift ARF disaster relief exercise.
They include sensitivities such as the issue of “military of one country operating in another country”, one US state department official said on condition of anonymity.