Asia-Pacific countries to co-operate on disaster relief

Officials from dozens of countries around the Pacific Ocean and southeast Asia have agreed to pool their military and civilian resources to help with emergency relief for big natural disasters.

Officials and ministers from 26 Asia-Pacific countries and the European Union announced an ambitious plan Thursday to pool military and civilian resources in emergency relief and responses to big natural disasters.

The agreement came during a meeting in Singapore of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the EU, the United States, Canada and other countries with Pacific basin interests.

The region has been devastated by major natural disasters in recent years, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the deadly cyclone in Burma in May and the earthquake in Sichuan, China, later the same month.

Plans were also made for a multinational exercise next year involving military and civilian disaster relief experts, according to Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo. 

It makes a lot of sense to conduct such exercises," said Yeo. "It is important to have a common vocabulary so that we don't misunderstand each other when we are in a hurry."

Yeo said they also talked about North Korea's nuclear program, terrorism and the border dispute between ASEAN members Cambodia and Thailand, as well as rising prices for food and energy.

Pyongyang promises peace

In a largely symbolic gesture, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun signed a non-aggression pact with ASEAN members, pledging to use diplomatic means to resolve any disputes with Southeast Asian and other countries in the region.

Disaster relief, however, was the dominant theme of the five-day conference.

A statement at the end of the meeting said the ministers "recognized that military assets and personnel, in full support and not in place of civilian responses, have played an increasingly important role in regional disaster responses."

The plan will also explore the feasibility of deploying other countries' armed forces to bolster civilian relief operations, it said.

Yeo said the plan is to establish co-ordination centres in various countries and establish procedures governing the use of military resources. There is also talk of having "designated forces on standby readiness."

Details of which countries would provide troops and other assets were deliberately kept vague, officials said.

Aid can't be forced: ministers

The statement underlined that aid cannot be forced on any country, a reference that observers say was probably included to put at ease countries like Burma, also known as Myanmar, which feel the presence of foreign troops on their soil, even for relief work, would jeopardize their sovereignty.

Burma's ruling junta refused to allow foreign militaries, including British, French, Canadian and U.S. forces, to provide direct help after Cyclone Nargis, and faced international criticism for its slow response. More than 84,000 people died in the storm and its aftermath.

The importance of military operations in disaster relief was made clear after the 2004 tsunami, when dozens of countries sent troops, ships, aid and helicopters to Indonesia, the country hardest hit with more than 160,000 killed in Aceh province.

With files from the Associated Press