YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – As the U.S. seeks to assert its military and financial influence in Asia, U.S. Pacific Command is ramping up engagements with new and old allies in the region under the auspices of humanitarian relief.
Before President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that U.S. troops would rotate through Australia in the name of disaster preparedness – widely viewed more as a response to China’s rise in the region – PACOM agreed to work with U.S. business interests and non-government organizations to accomplish the same goal throughout disaster-prone Asia.
Established during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii, the partnership pairs PACOM with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Ford Foundation, the University of Hawaii and USAID, among others. It aims to help Asian nations establish better coordination with NGOs, businesses and local communities in government-led disaster planning and response.
“Whether it's response or resilience, governments can’t do it on their own anymore,” said John Goodman, a retired Marine general who heads the Defense Department’s disaster strategy center in Hawaii near PACOM headquarters.
Still recovering from the catastrophic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that hit in the spring, Japan is the first country to officially become involved with the effort and already has been working with the U.S. to strengthen its public-private partnerships in the wake of the March disaster.
Dubbed “Operation Tomodachi,” the U.S. military’s massive relief effort focused on delivering tons of foreign and domestic aid and cleanup in devastated northern Japan.
Despite the strong military-to-military operations between the U.S. and Japan during the crises, better coordination with civilian agencies is a must, said Goodman, who commanded U.S. Marine Forces Pacific before taking over as head of the DOD’s Center of Excellence in Disaster Management and Humanitarian Assistance three years ago.
It’s advice the U.S. is also learning to heed, said Goodman.
Two of the biggest challenges immediately following the triple-pronged disaster, Goodman said, were the U.S. military overloading civilian communication frequencies while setting up the emergency operation and a lack of protocol for military intervention during a civilian nuclear crisis.
For now, the PACOM-led initiative does not call for increased U.S. troops into the region and is focused instead on building upon already established military and economic relationships with Japan, Vietnam, the Phillipines and Indonesia, officials said.
Including the business community in disaster preparation brings a much-needed element to sustaining long-term recovery plans in devastated communities, said Richard Berry, PACOM’s director of strategic partnerships in its outreach directorate.
Militaries and governments are typically so efficient at delivering aid that local businesses are often side-stepped in the process and end up languishing when they could help themselves and the community by getting back to business, he said.
The U.S. is downplaying its leadership role so that “something meaningful can emerge based on need, not other agendas,” Berry said.