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National Defense > Blog > Posts > WMD Threat in Asia: ‘W’ Is For Weather
WMD Threat in Asia: ‘W’ Is For Weather
By Sandra I. Erwin



In Washington, D.C., issues such as China’s regional ambitions and North Korea’s ballistic missiles tend to dominate most discussions about the “pivot to the Pacific” strategy that President Obama unveiled a year ago. Over in Asia, however, nations are far more worried about a more immediate and recurring threat that keeps wreaking havoc across the region: natural disasters.

During Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s latest trip to the Far East, the impact of weather events was a front-burner topic in most meetings with local leaders, said a senior defense official who participated in the U.S. delegation that the defense secretary led in September.

“One of the biggest threats is clearly nature,” the official told reporters Dec. 19. “The overwhelming destruction that natural disasters bring in this part of the world is first and foremost on Southeast Asian countries’ minds,” he said.

The Philippines, which was recently savaged by a major typhoon, is currently the focus of U.S. aid efforts in Asia, the official said. “The U.S. and Philippine governments are working hand in glove to try to bring aid and comfort to those affected by the recent typhoon,” he said.

The U.S. military will be increasingly expected to provide disaster relief in Asia, he said. “This part of the world is just ripe for inclement weather,” he said. “There are other [humanitarian concerns] such as diseases and viruses. That is where a lot of our conversations focus with Southeast Asian countries.”

The Obama administration will be seeking to boost the military’s capabilities to provide post-disaster relief, the official said. “We view that as a very important mission in that part of the world and we are working every day to strengthen our capacity to deliver such aid.”

Although the primary goal is to help the needy, there are also self-serving reasons to assist countries in distress, the official noted. “It’s a good opportunity to show a side of the military that often isn’t shown in broadcast news or other outlets in that part of the world,” he said. “We view it as a very important humanitarian mission but it is also in our interest to build goodwill and partner capacity.”

In a speech this week in Washington, Panetta iterated the Pentagon’s plans to expand its presence in the Asia-Pacific region. “Over the past year, we reached major agreements with Japan to realign our forces and jointly develop Guam as a strategic hub, worked to strengthen cooperation with the Republic of Korea in space, cyberspace and intelligence, and began new Marine Corps rotational deployments to Australia as well as increased Air Force cooperation,” said Panetta. The U.S. military also will be stepping up rotational deployments in Singapore and The Philippines.

Asia’s natural disasters and expectations that more U.S. military assistance will be needed in response illustrate the climate-related security challenges that Panetta mentioned in an earlier speech. “In the 21st century, we recognize that climate change can impact national security — ranging from rising sea levels, to severe droughts, to the melting of the polar caps, to more frequent and devastating natural disasters that raise demand for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Panetta said.

A recent  “Climate Report” by the American Security Project warned that extreme weather events will affect global security. “Because the United States is a global power with strategic interests around the world, climate change is strategically important to the U.S. through the impacts it has on the regional stability of our allies.” Climate-related events, the study said, “will cause an increase in frequency of disaster relief responses by U.S. and allied military forces.” ASP listed specific climate “hot-zones” that national security planners should focus on: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, the East Asia-Pacific, and the Arctic.

Photo Credit: NASA

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