Using Weapons to Save Lives: An Introduction to Special Issue on Taiwan’s Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Relief Capabilities

Using Weapons to Save Lives: An Introduction to Special Issue on Taiwan’s Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Relief Capabilities

Using Weapons to Save Lives: An Introduction to Special Issue on Taiwan’s Humanitarian Assistance / Disaster Relief Capabilities

David An is a senior research fellow at the Global Taiwan Institute and was previously a political-military officer at the US Department of State.

Days after the Hualien earthquake on February 6—which killed dozens and involved a dramatic news photo of a building leaning sideways at a 45 degree angle—the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI) held a timely public seminar to consider various aspects of Taiwan’s humanitarian assistance / disaster relief capabilities on February 14 (with full audio recording). The topics discussed at the public seminar now culminate into this special edition Global Taiwan Brief (GTB) publication focusing on Taiwan’s humanitarian assistance / disaster relief (HA/DR) situation. While all seminar panelists and GTB writers shared the same starting point by noting that Taiwan is among the most exposed to natural disasters, as Taiwan is situated directly on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and therefore prone to earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons; the authors in this special issue subsequently pursued their separate areas of interest in the history of Taiwan emergency management system, Taiwan’s civil society organizations, lessons for Taiwan from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and learning from Japan’s past experiences in this special edition publication.

In addition to the Hualien earthquake, 2018 marks the seventh anniversary of the devastating Japan earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. HA/DR in Japan could contain many lessons for Taiwan, however one key differentiation is that the United States’ response to Japan was also enhanced by the US-Japan formal alliance, which is absent between the United States and Taiwan. For this reason, US-Japan cooperation is often at a larger scope than between the United States with Taiwan. Japan expert Yuki Tatsumi discusses this topic thoroughly in her article for this special issue. She explains how there are lessons to be learned for all sides—especially prospects for heightened US-Taiwan coordination for future disasters—as well as the possibility of multilateral rather than simply bilateral disaster relief cooperation in the future.

The year 2018 also marks the ninth anniversary of Typhoon Morakot that took place in August 2009, which left 673 Taiwanese people dead, nearly 2,000 homes destroyed, and an estimated US $3.3 billion in damages in Taiwan. The silver lining in this dark cloud is that during Typhoon Morakot, the United States demonstrated that it is a reliable partner of Taiwan by delivering relief supplies such as plastic sheeting for temporary housing, excavators and earthmoving equipment directly to Taiwan. Much of the relief supplies were delivered using US military equipment, such as C-130 cargo aircraft and heavy lift helicopters, indicates the importance of a military role in disaster relief.

To harm or to heal

At the GTI public seminar, panelist and former US State Department Assistant Secretary of Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro and GTI senior research fellow David An shared the view of how military equipment could be used to heal as well as to harm, so it is therefore in this sense “dual use.” The military is trained and equipped to be the first to respond, and to arrive on scene in dire conditions that would be too challenging for others. A tsunami could still churn for days and continue to drop inches of rain. Weather conditions and the situation on the ground could be so dangerous that civil society organizations such as the International Red Cross, Red Crescent, Doctors Without Borders are unable to respond in time.

Andrew Shapiro and David An are keenly aware that the first 24 or 48 hours immediately after a major natural disaster are critical and often the military is the only organization that can respond in time. Roads might be washed away through landslides, making rural areas unreachable using regular ground transportation. Such difficult conditions—as well as complex planning and logistical chains—explain why militaries are equipped and trained to be first responders. Indeed, as a lesson learned for Taiwan: In the immediate aftermath of the 2011 Great Earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Government of Japan mobilized two-thirds of his military personnel to engage in a wide range of HA/DR activities. Therefore, when it comes to HA/DR, many of the same weapons and training directed toward harming enemy combatants can instead be used to help and heal civilians.

Highlights of this special issue

Though the military is most likely the first on the scene of the disaster, there are important roles for civil society organizations in long-term reconstruction. Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) graduate student who is also a current GTI intern Ariel Chiang addressed this point in at the beginning of her article for this special issue publication when she describes the “military as first responder.” According to Chiang, the military is often among the only organizations still capable of functioning after a disaster. However, after the weather and local conditions improve, then it is safer for civil society organizations to move into affected areas to help disaster victims rebuild their lives. In Taiwan, Chiang highlights the role of two such civilian organizations: Tzu Chi and International Red Cross.

More than simply being a first responder, Taiwan’s military takes disaster relief to be an important mission. Kevin McCauley at RAND Corporation, who was previously a former Department of Defense analyst, explains in Taiwan military’s disaster relief mission and also discusses in detail the types of military equipment possessed by Taiwan that could be used for disaster relief—to include wheeled vehicles, armored vehicles, aircraft, inflatable boats, and construction equipment. He further elaborates by using Taiwan’s annual Min’an (民安) disaster relief exercises as a case study.

There are valuable lessons for Taiwan from the US’ FEMA principles and phases of emergency management. Leo Bosner, who is a 29 year veteran of FEMA explains the principles and phases in detail. He then traces the history of the development of emergency management system in Taiwan over the past eight decades to conclude that Taiwan’s disaster relief personnel are very eager to listen and learn from outside expertise, but more effective coordination is constrained by challenges to interagency organizational coordination.

Taiwan can also draw from many lessons from Japan’s disaster relief capabilities, especially the Government of Japan’s efforts in the wake of Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Japan expert Yuki Tatsumi at the Stimson Center explains that the Great Earthquake was a triple disaster involving a high magnitude earthquake, unprecedented tsunami, which both caused the meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. Tatsumi notes that Japan’s government needed to coordinate to receive a massive influx of foreign aid, which was hard to do with many local leaders in affected areas dead from the disasters. Taiwan can benefit from Japan’s lessons learned after the 2011 triple disaster, as well as note US-Japan cooperation and how it could apply to US-Taiwan cooperation in the future.

This special edition complements the HA/DR public seminar previously held at GTI that brought together an insightful mix of former government officials, academics, think tank policy experts. In this GTB, FEMA veteran Leo Bosner discusses the history of Taiwan’s emergency management system; RAND researcher Kevin McCauley describes Taiwan’s specific military and HA/DR training; think tank expert Yuki Tatsumi’s mentions how Taiwan can learn lessons from Japan’s experience; and GTI intern and Johns Hopkins SAIS graduate student Ariel Chiang explains the role of Taiwan’s civil society associations in disaster relief. The seminar and this GTB publication were both valuable opportunities to talk about ways to use the military and other organizations to heal rather than to hurt.

The main point: One key aspect of Taiwan’s military is that in the face of natural disasters, it is “dual use” in the sense that military equipment and personnel can to harm as well as to heal, yet other aspects of Taiwan’s HA/DR include the history of Taiwan’s emergency management system, Taiwan’s specific military and HA/DR equipment, how Taiwan can learn lessons from Japan’s experience, and the role of Taiwan’s civil society associations in disaster relief—all key themes in the Global Taiwan Institutes public seminar and this special edition publication.