Showing solidarity in times of need

Showing solidarity in times of need


Typhoon Haiyan's huge footprint of disaster has left the Philippines reeling.

Millions are affected, many now facing desperate conditions living in the open. The death toll is mounting. In the grim aftermath of one of the strongest tropical storms ever recorded, it is heartening to witness a growing wave of international support for the pressing disaster relief work needed there.

Warnings of the strength of the super typhoon and the likely damage were heard well over a week ago. And battering storms are a predictable scourge in the Philippines every year.

Yet the Filipino authorities looked like they were caught offguard. Such threats call for a well-rehearsed plan that covers crisis management, evacuation, security, rapid damage assessment, search and rescue operations, and emergency medical care.

A clear-eyed assessment must be made of local capacity to re-establish supply lines, set up emergency communications and organise relief operations. If domestic resources are inadequate, national pride should not get in the way of early calls for external assistance.

ASEAN's Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response, signed in 2005, mandates the strengthening of measures to mitigate the effects of disaster and to coordinate humanitarian assistance.

The standby arrangements and standard operating procedures under this pact are regularly oiled via simulation exercises - the latest was held just last month in Hanoi. But when massive calamities strike, the grouping ought to not just rely on this mechanism for group action, but go well beyond it so any member state in distress can get speedy and sufficient assistance.

Nothing can demonstrate the worth of ASEAN solidarity more than such concrete action in times of need. For example, if access to a disaster-hit area is likely to be an issue, ASEAN could dispatch a flotilla of vessels to the spot for various relief purposes.

In contrast, it was the United States that was visibly quick to arrive at the scene when aircraft carrier USS George Washington sailed in to lend a hand.

The Americans promised US$20 million (S$25 million) in aid; Britain, Japan, New Zealand and the Vatican pledged millions. China's token donation, however, was not in keeping with the international role the superpower aspires to, and could even signal "mean-spiritedness", as observers suggested, provoked by its maritime dispute with the Philippines.

Nature will continue to vent its fury in the region and few can claim immunity. Hence in the interest of good relations over the long term, disaster diplomacy ought to be based on good neighbourliness and not be too calculating or tardy.

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