BEIJING, Jan. 13 -- Last December's apocalyptic tsunami claimed the lives of tens of thousands in Indonesia's Aceh Province- which accounts for more than half of the dead - Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Malaysia and the Maldives. Although the most affected are Asian countries, the tsunami was perhaps the first truly "global" catastrophe of its kind.
Half of Thailand's dead are believed to be foreigners, holidaying on Thailand's beautiful southern beaches. There were also considerable numbers of overseas tourists on the Sri Lankan coast at that time, as well as in the Maldives. Globalization turned this otherwise regional natural disaster into a "global event," testimony to which were the minutes of silence observed across the world, from Europe to the Americas, as well as the massive outpouring of grief and relief operations forthcoming from individual countries, the UN and multinational financial institutions.
But this disaster has also inevitably brought to mind five possible assessments of the tsunami's aftermath, of particular importance to Asia. It is hoped that from this crisis, new opportunities would emerge, as the Chinese word weiji - where danger threatens, opportunity is also to be found - aptly signifies.
First, the tsunami should focus our minds on what is termed "non-traditional" or "soft security," as opposed to "hard security" - conflict, war and defence - alone, with which we are more familiar. "Soft security" concerns those trans-border security issues which affect the environment, the spread of disease regionally, natural calamities across a region and trans-border social problems, such as the trafficking of women, children, small arms and munitions and bomb-making equipment, which may threaten the security of a group of countries within a region.
A natural calamity such as the latest earthquake and tsunami devastated a whole region. The energy generated by the earthquake was stronger than that which would have been given off if a nuclear bomb was exploded, according to seismologists. Countless lives perished and property and livelihoods were destroyed on a massive scale and security on the Indian Ocean rim was threatened, in a way similar to the effects of war and conflict. An enormous re-construction effort needs to be undertaken.
The first fundamental lesson in assessing the tsunami aftermath is the realization that "soft security" concerns are just as important as "hard security" issues, and should therefore not be taken for granted. Asia lived through the disastrous effects of SARS in 2003 and avian flu in 2004, both of which impacted tremendously on its fragile economic and human security.
Second, the tsunami disaster has helped focus attention away from terrorism in the United States and amongst Americans, albeit temporarily, and onto development. Terrorism is not only a Western preoccupation, as underscored by the fact that it plagues all the major tsunami-affected countries. But developing nations and regions have perhaps a more important stake in developmental or human security than the West.
An "over-obsession" with terrorism alone may not necessarily be in the core interests of developing nations, as appears to be the case in the West, especially when terrorism often germinates in circumstances of under-development and lack of social justice. Developed and developing nations may indeed have different priorities and agendas. Human security has a broader meaning in the developing world than the anti-terror drive of Washington. The tsunami disaster has unexpectedly focused attention on the imperative of development, which the United States and the West have inevitably accepted and adopted in the tsunami's aftermath.
Third, the circumstances and backgrounds of those who perished and the current massive humanitarian relief effort also demonstrate that natural disaster knows no religious distinction. More than 150,000 of the dead are from the Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian faiths.
Likewise, no religious or ethnic boundaries distinguish the source of the massive outpouring of medical and relief assistance which has come not only from the West, but also from elsewhere around the world.
Samuel Huntington's argument in "Clash of Civilizations" flounders, as death and aid know no creed or colour in this "global tragedy." We perish and stand in solidarity as brothers and equals in the face of such a disaster. The novelty is also that US military assistance and Western relief operations can now "enter" areas in Aceh, closed to foreign scrutiny and presence for years, to offer timely assistance to the survivors.
Fourth, the massive aid distribution, debt moratorium and re-construction should also bring to mind the necessity of wealth re-distribution in an emerging and growing Asia. Increasing GDP alone is not sufficient to guarantee social stability and peace in this region. Fairer distribution and the quality, and not just quantity, of growth are essential to bind societies and maintain social stability and cohesion. The massive re-construction efforts must not miss this crucial point, just as China has sought to implement considerable social engineering efforts to "balance" its affluent coastal provinces with its backward western interior region and blighted northeastern "rust belt."
Indonesia's Aceh, Sri Lanka's eastern areas, Thailand's "deep South" and India's Tamil Naidu state all urgently need development aid in order to "balance" their richer regions and provinces. But Asia should also learn the lesson of this disaster to ensure greater social and wealth re-distribution within its economies, countries and regions to "guarantee" social stability.
Last, but not least, the relief operation has brought about a surge of goodwill and co-operation within the Asian region. From Singapore's humanitarian operations and China's generous offers of humanitarian assistance to the massive funds pledged thus far by Japan and Australia for reconstruction, Asia Pacific co-operation has clearly risen a notch or two since December 26. This may augur well, especially in the lead-up to the inaugural launch of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur in November. While for its part China, scheduled to host the second summit in 2006, could well use the opportunity to encourage greater regional co-operation and integration to ensure a successful EAS.
Assessing the tsunami disaster and its current relief operations-cum-re-construction efforts could indeed turn this disaster into opportunity for Asia. Human security has indeed emerged as key to Asia's future stability and integration. Enditem
(Source: China Daily)