One of the more striking images of the 2008 earthquake in China was of a Japanese destroyer steaming into a Chinese port as part of a relief mission, the first such instance since the end of World War II. The Chinese were quick to reciprocate with a similar offer of aid following the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Disaster relief operations as an opportunity to engage in diplomacy is not a new phenomenon but seems certainly to have picked up pace in recent years, particularly in Asia, where disasters are frequent and more often than not are accompanied by heavy losses to life and property.
Original Presentation: “Disaster Relief: Politics, Security Implications and Foreign Policy,” 4th Berlin Conference on Asian Security 2009, 28-30 October 2009, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP, Berlin).
This essay highlights some key characteristics of disaster relief operations in Asia, with a particular focus on the southern Asian region. The thrust of the paper is not so much at the mechanics of disaster relief as at the politics of disaster relief. That there is clearly politics – foreign policy interests and domestic factors of both donor and recipient nations – involved in humanitarian relief and assistance has been well documented. In Asia certainly, as important as the aid itself is, is who provides it and how. As a continent of mostly developing countries it is inevitable that disaster-struck nations often find themselves short of the capacity required to deal with the aftermath. What capacity exists is usually state capacity, often acting through the agent of military forces rather than adequate civilian response. Often, there is foreign military support required as also the resources and capabilities of international NGOs (INGOs).
Beginning with a brief exercise in defining what constitutes disasters, the essay draws attention to three key factors affecting disaster relief operation in Asia – prestige or image issues, security implications and foreign policy goals.
Defining Disasters in Asia