ARF = Asean Relief Force?

The United States calls for a joint relief force as a concrete way of strengthening cooperation in the Asean Regional Forum.

THE United States is proposing a joint disaster relief force under the auspices of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), possibly to be established within 18 months.

Mr Christopher Hill, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said that it was one concrete way to strengthen the ARF – moving it away from “seminars to actual cooperation”.

Speaking to a select group of journalists from Asian media, including The Straits Times, before leaving for the ARF gathering in Manila, he noted:

“The ARF can and will do more. We don’t want to be doing the same things in the ARF 10 years from now. That’s why it’s time to try doing some actual exercises with forces. It will be a response to what the needs are, and I think disaster relief is one of the big needs in the region.”

Several Asian countries have faced major natural disasters in recent years that ranged from floods to volcano eruptions and earthquakes.

In 2004, the region suffered one of the most destructive earthquakes in modern history when the tsunami left a trail of disaster that affected parts of Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Mr Hill said that given such disasters, it was time for ARF forces to work together.

Washington had already drawn up a concept that would have US forces working with member countries in a scenario in the Philippines, which would involve amphibious forces landing on a beach to help villagers facing a natural disaster.

But he revealed that different scenarios – that could include dealing with another tsunami crisis – could be drawn up in initial tabletop exercises.

He believed that ultimately, up to eight ARF countries could be working together on this project which could be set up in the next year and a half.

“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “It will take a lot of planning because some of the ARF forces have not had the opportunity to work together. It will be the first time the ARF has done something like this.”

The US proposal for a disaster relief force is one clear indication of American engagement in the region.

Indeed, Mr Hill took pains during the interview to highlight continued American involvement in Asia despite growing criticism that it was too focused on the Middle East and Iraq.

There is also a view that Washington was only concerned with North Korea and counter-terrorism in the region.

Such perceptions have been reinforced by the decision of President George W. Bush to postpone a summit with Asean leaders, and by the absence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for the two-day ARF meeting.

It will be the second time that Dr Rice, who is now travelling in the Middle East, has skipped the meeting in three years.

“I can assure you that she would rather be in Manila than in some of the places she’s going to now,” he said.

Mr Hill explained that the perceptions that the US was uninterested in the region “is to some extent an anachronism”. It stemmed from a view that Washington was not engaged during the financial crisis in the late 1990s.

But the evidence in recent years suggested otherwise. There was a “robust programme” of high-level visits and economic engagement in the form of the US-Asean Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.

He disclosed that Washington was also looking closely now – after 30 years since it was introduced – at the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation which required signatory countries to forego violence against member states.

“There is no question that the stakes in Iraq and Afghanistan are very high, as are the stakes in overall Middle East peace,” he said.

“And understandably, our leaders need to be very much focused on that. But because they’re focusing on that doesn’t mean they are neglecting Asean.”

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