When ASEAN states next work together on a disaster - like the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 or delivering aid to Typhoon Haiyan victims in the Philippines - the coordination may well be done in Singapore.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen has offered to host a regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief coordination centre at Changi Naval Base.
The suggestion, made at a three-day summit of defence ministers from ASEAN and the United States, was supported by the ministers. There are no details yet on when it might begin operation.
"We'll flesh this out and put it into operation if the other member states agree, and senior officials will see how to operationalise it," Dr Ng told reporters.
He said Singaporeans participating in disaster relief efforts saw how difficult it was for the affected nation to set up such a centre in the critical first few days.
"And it occurred to us that what you really needed was a C2 (command and control) centre that was stood up all the time that... had the ability to input all the information that various agencies would bring to bear when such crises occurred, and then make a coherent picture for everyone to see."
The proposal was one of the highlights of the first-ever US-hosted meeting between ASEAN and US defence ministers.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel welcomed the idea of the Singapore-based centre.
"This could be an important venue for nations in the region to coordinate military responses to disasters, and it's an idea that we're going to pursue," he said on the last day of the meeting on Thursday.
The proposed coordination centre will be modelled after a similar centre in Changi that coordinates responses for maritime security in the region.
Set up in 2009, the Information Fusion Centre has links to 64 agencies in 34 countries. Fifteen international liaison officers from 13 countries work directly out of the centre.
"We set up terminals; you bring in your systems. You give the information that you feel comfortable with" and the centre fuses the information and puts it out, said Dr Ng of its role.
While the US' rebalance to Asia and territorial disputes in the South China Sea had originally been expected to dominate the agenda, the ongoing search for the missing Malaysian jet pushed talks on improving how the militaries work together to the fore.
But increasing tensions in the region and China's assertiveness did occupy the ministers on the final day. Mr Hagel said he would speak candidly with the Chinese and encourage "responsible behaviour" when he visits Beijing next week.
On regional disputes, Dr Ng said there has been progress made on the Code of Conduct to manage them, with China having publicly said it supports the measure. He added that the key to stability was to build up understanding between nations.
This article was published on April 5 in The Straits Times.
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