SuperTyphoon Haiyan, which devastated large areas of the central Philippines on Nov 7, has presented the region with what may become a textbook operation for multinational naval Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR).
Yet the awkward fact remains that the effort is being led by states outside the region.
Beyond the limited capabilities of the Philippines, ASEAN navies have been conspicuous in their absence. This is odd, considering the high-profile attention given to HADR cooperation within ASEAN itself, the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meetings with regional dialogue partners.
Naval vessels and aircraft are only one part of the HADR toolkit. Yet, they are frequently the only assets on scene. They bring ready-made capabilities and personnel skill sets for damage assessment, search and rescue, as well as deliver emergency supplies such as food, water, shelter items and medical care.
Command and communications to coordinate the wider relief effort can be vital too, particularly when land-based civilian infrastructure is not up to the task. Moreover, the ability to operate autonomously offshore can mitigate the sensitivities of local populations towards a foreign military presence in the initial chaotic stages.
It can also help overcome land-based logistical and infrastructural bottlenecks.
Beyond the "first response" phase, the ability of navies to operate autonomously offshore for long periods gives them a unique advantage. A floating presence just out of sight also gives stretched relief workers and vulnerable evacuees temporary respite in a safe "rear area" that also carries its own force protection.
As was the case during the Asian tsunami in December 2004, a US aircraft carrier and its accompanying escorts were nearby. They were diverted from the South China Sea shortly after the typhoon hit.
The USS George Washington carrier group began relief operations on Nov 14, ferrying drinking water and taking stations off Samar and Leyte islands. The carrier alone can produce 1.5 million litres of fresh water daily.
Given the bottlenecks in aid distribution, compounded by the weakness of existing infrastructure in the Philippines and its geography, the 21 helicopters within the carrier group, augmented by US Marine Corps MV-22B Ospreys deployed from Okinawa, will provide an indispensable front-end airlift capability for the relief effort, as well as damage assessment and emergency response.
The US Navy's hospital ship USS Mercy will join the relief effort after crossing the Pacific.
Britain's Royal Navy was also fortuitously well placed to respond. HMS Daring, a Type-45 destroyer, already present in the South China Sea for a Five Power Defence Arrangement exercise, docked at the island of Cebu on Sunday after being ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron to divert to the Philippines.
Daring's re-deployment was soon followed by the announcement that remaining British carrier HMS Illustrious, with a complement of seven helicopters, has been diverted from the Gulf to relieve Daring late this month.
While Illustrious brings far more capability to the disaster zone, the fact that the Type-45 was in a position to respond immediately is a good advertisement for the flexibility of other ships to serve in the HADR role. Daring's desalination plant, advanced communications and single Lynx helicopter will provide time-critical support upfront.
The ship's biggest asset, however, may be its crew, including not only medical and engineering competence, but also general training that reflects the Royal Navy's doctrinal commitment to HADR operations.
An official from Britain's Department for International Development (DfID) is on board to help coordinate the civil-military relief effort - for which the British government has thus far pledged £50 million (S$100 million) - along with DfID staff on the ground.
Japan has emerged as another major contributor. In fact, the naval element will be prominent in what promises to be Japan's largest peacetime overseas deployment of the Self Defence Forces, involving 1,100 personnel, 16 military aircraft and three ships, including the flat-topped Ise, which can carry up to 11 helicopters.
Japan's HADR contingent could not be dispatched until a formal request from the Philippines had been received - even though defence cooperation between Tokyo and Manila has been expanded recently.
Japanese warships, carrying some 650 troops and six helicopters, left the western port of Kure on Monday and are due to arrive in the Philippines on Friday.
China's modest financial contribution to the relief effort has also generated international criticism. The more glaring omission, however, is ASEAN.
Thailand and South Korea hosted a disaster relief exercise this May, with the aim of improving "the ARF participants' ability to rapidly provide coordinated and effective disaster relief". In June, a combined military and medical HADR exercise was co-hosted by Brunei and Singapore, with participation from all 10 ASEAN members.
Singapore's air force has sent relief supplies to Tacloban and Cebu and, at the request of the Philippine military, has extended the deployment of the second of its C-130 transports. Brunei has recently announced the dispatch of a patrol vessel and fixed-wing aircraft, while Thailand has offered to provide a C-130 transport and medical assistance.
Beyond these bilateral initiatives, however, there is little public evidence of an ASEAN-led coordinated effort translating into contributions of defence assets from member states.
The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on disaster management, based in Jakarta, pre-positioned some personnel in Manila and Tacloban one day before the typhoon made landfall.
On Nov 10, the centre announced that it would share its assessment with "ASEAN member states and potential assisting entities to help them deciding the types of assistance to be provided".
But comments attributed to the Thai and Indonesian foreign ministers at a joint press conference in Bangkok on Nov 14 suggested some frustration that ASEAN's response had materialised more slowly than that from Britain and the US.
At the national level, ASEAN has the requisite capabilities to respond to the international HADR effort in the Philippines. Moreover, the scale of devastation there means that even niche contributions will be useful, beyond the naval and airlift assets committed by the US, Britain, Japan and others.
Having made HADR the centrepiece of recent defence cooperation exercises, if ASEAN does not respond more convincingly to the real-life disaster in the Philippines, it risks missing its "Hurricane Katrina moment". Haiyan may have passed, but its damaging potential remains. Fortunately, there is still time to act.
The writer is a senior fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore.
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