Disaster Politics and Non-Traditional Security in the Asia-Pacific

Disaster Politics and Non-Traditional Security in the Asia-Pacific


The recent series of disasters in Japan has prioritized the importance of disaster mitigation. Starting from earthquakes and tsunamis in Tohoku area which are still continuing, followed by nuclear power plant issues in Fukushima which has already reached level 7, the highest emergency level in international nuclear standards, the calamities have caused an enormous number of victims and internally-displaced people. There have been growing concerns not only in Japan, but also in the rest of the world on how to handle the situation. Putting aside the powwows in the media, there is a popular push for a greater transparency from the authorities, especially from the Japanese government and TEPCO or Tokyo Electric Power Company following their handling of Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis.

Reflecting from the Japanese experience, there are two lessons learned from this case. First, regionally speaking, the Asia-Pacific possesses the same vulnerability as Japan in facing the danger of disasters. Second, it is clear that disaster issues have a significant political and security dimension. In the discipline of International Relations, the risk of natural disaster, along with a variety of other problems such as disease epidemic and climate change, is categorized under the umbrella of Non-Traditional Security Threats or NTS. Whereas traditional security perspective focuses on state as the main agent and perpetual threat in international politics and puts more emphasis on military-based measures, NTS threats are largely nonmilitary, asymmetric, and transnational in nature. Japan’s situation is an obvious example of NTS challenge, which requires an immediate effort of “securitization”.

Politics of Disaster

To securitize and mitigate the impacts of disaster, a collaboration of state and societal responses is essential for an effective disaster mitigation policy. Despite many criticisms on the transparency of the administration, Japan has shown how the combination of sound public policy and social solidarity among citizens complemented with a good infrastructure and relief system is the key to bring about post-disaster stability.

The question that needs to be posed is how to implement such kind of policy at regional level, especially in the Asia-Pacific where there is a high level of disaster vulnerability and diverse profiles of socio-economic, demographic, and mitigation systems. The use of nuclear energy and its socio-political effects are also another factor which will also trigger various pros and cons in the public space As a geographically vulnerable region, it is imperative for every regional actor in the Asia-Pacific to develop regional mechanism to tackle NTS challenges, in order to promote regional resilience and readiness in the field of NTS, in particular to promote disaster preparedness among the policymakers as well as the citizens.

The spotlight should also be directed to the developing part of the Asia-Pacific, for instance Indonesia, the Philippines, and other countries in Southeast Asia to name a few, considering the fact that these countries, which are lacking capacity in disaster management, have been frequently affected by natural calamities, such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 and the Kestana Typhoon in 2009. In the light of this argument, the move for transnational and regional initiatives is more important than ever.

Changing Contour of Japanese Politics

The unpredictable natural catastrophe in Japan will reshape the domestic, regional, and international dynamics of disaster politics in the upcoming years in many ways.

First, compared to many other countries, even the developed ones, Japan has set the standard on disaster mitigation and the management of its impacts. The secret of Japan’s competence in maintaining social order and solidarity lies in the close cooperation between state and society, manifested in public policies and infrastructures, and more importantly, ethical values of solidarity, orderliness, and altruism. It is important to note that this spirit is not built overnight, but a result of incentive-based policies of encouraging the value of social cohesion as a virtue.

Second, the current condition of the Fukushima story indicates that although the Japanese government has done the right thing, there is a lack of transparency from the government and TEPCO in dealing with the nuclear issue. In order to gain the public trust, it is necessary to have a better communication with the citizens; otherwise the public distrust may continue to grow.

Third, the disaster has unexpectedly transformed the nature of Japanese politics. For the incumbent Democratic Party of Japan or DPJ, who is a newcomer in Japanese politics, this is a test for the party’s competency in responding to public demands. Concurrently, we also witness the rise of alternative politics and social movement in Japan, as can be seen in the latest anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo.

Japanese Lessons for Vulnerable Asia-Pacific

There are a couple of steps that can be taken into future consideration for the Asia-Pacific in the aftermath of the tragedy in Japan.

The existing regional mechanism for NTS challenges should be translated into a set of concrete policies and action plans. At the moment, ASEAN has a number of agreements on NTS. However, it is crucial to implement this instrument not only within the institution, but also with other entities as well. Joint cooperation on NTS between China and ASEAN, for example, ought to be executed in a more concrete manner.

In regards to people’s participation in disaster mitigation, what the region needs now is the state capability to integrate social solidarity in the policy framework of disaster management, as exemplified by Japan. Furthermore, the media should also act as the channel of impartial information and reporting of the truth, rather than the tool of instigating public panic. Last but not the least, enhancing the state capacity in the Asia-Pacific will be the key in coping with the hazard of disaster and other NTS threats. At the end of the day, it is the state that should act and take the lead.

*Iqra Anugrah is a Master student at Graduate School of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan. He is actively involved in a number of student movements.