Hanoi (AFP) July 21, 2010
Asia's largest security forum is expected this week to adopt a plan boosting civil and military co-ordination in response to natural disasters -- a rising threat across the region.
The 27-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum meets in Hanoi on Friday, where a priority is improved cooperation in disaster relief by 2020, according to a draft action plan seen by AFP.
The forum gathers major powers including China and the United States but is driven by the 10-member ASEAN bloc, which has been criticised in the past for a lacklustre response to Southeast Asian natural disasters.
An initiative to improve relief was welcomed by the Asia-Pacific disaster chief of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Michael Annear.
But "these agreements need to then be taken to the country level and incorporated into national processes" to be effective, he added.
The forum's statement aimed to "harmonise regional cooperation" over relief and strengthen civil-military coordination -- for example by holding regular exercises -- to enhance disaster responses over the next decade.
It also sets out plans to develop tools such as a "model legal arrangement for foreign military assistance".
But such pledges could be deflecting attention from more complicated issues such as tensions over North Korea's nuclear programme, according to Ian Storey, a fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
He told AFP the forum "is moving toward more cooperation on less sensitive issues like humanitarian cooperation and disaster relief... because the other issues are just too difficult to deal with".
The region is prone to earthquakes, storms and volcanic eruptions and is expected to be hard-hit by rising sea levels and extreme weather caused by climate change.
Experts have said environmental damage, shoddy urban planning, corruption and other man-made problems are magnifying the human cost of natural disasters almost every time they strike in Asia.
The latest calamity, Typhoon Conson, has left a death toll of 76 in the Philippines, two in China and one in Vietnam over the past week, with dozens more still missing and feared dead.
At a security conference last month in Singapore, top regional officials called for a more coordinated response to relief operations across Asia-Pacific nations.
Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi called for the establishment of centres focusing on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
His New Zealand counterpart, Wayne Mapp, agreed the region had "to move beyond talking about to actually doing something and having centres of excellence, probably regional based, would probably help".
In May 2008, ASEAN was faulted for failing to pressure military-ruled Myanmar, a member of the bloc, to allow in international aid after Cyclone Nargis devastated the country's south, leaving 138,000 dead or missing.
A group of officials from the UN and ASEAN were eventually allowed to coordinate aid with Myanmar's government, which the bloc hailed as a successful example of its capability and unity.
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