After troops, US sends 'Mercy' to South China Sea

By Rodney Jaleco, ABS CBN North America Bureau

Posted at May 02 2012 10:43 AM | Updated as of May 03 2012 12:28 AM

Hospital Ship USNS Mercy USA T-AH19

WASHINGTON D.C. - To help assuage fears of growing militarization of the South China Sea, the United States Navy is mounting a high-profile humanitarian mission in the region that will involve at least two nations locked in a territorial dispute with China.

The US Pacific Fleet is mounting Pacific Partnership 2012 – that it described as the “largest annual humanitarian and civic assistance mission in the Asia-Pacific region, designed to strengthen regional relationships and increase interoperability between the United States, partner nations, and international humanitarian and relief organizations.”

The blog site “The Hill” claimed that the Pentagon was looking at the feasibility of coordinating the Medical Civic Action Program (MEDCAP) with special operations units already in the Philippines.

The 2012 mission platform will be the USNS Mercy (T-AH 19). The Military Sealift Command hospital ship will leave its San Diego homeport May 1 to visit Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

The US will be joined by 12 partner nations including Australia, Canada, Chile, France, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Thailand.

The Pacific Partnership will also be joined by a number of NGOs and agencies including the East-West Center, Global Grins, Hope Worldwide, LDS Charities, Project Handclasp, Project Hope, UC San Diego Pre-Dental Society, University of Hawaii, World Vets; as well as, USAID, Dept of Justice, NOAA, and joint partners – the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

A Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) vessel will visit the Philippines and Vietnam, along with complete medical teams, helicopters, and Japanese volunteer organizations.

Navy medical specialists plan to carry out humanitarian support operations alongside their military and civilian counterparts in each country, mission commander Capt. James Morgan said.

Those operations will include setting up medical treatment centers inland and bringing locals aboard the USNS Mercy for more complicated medical procedures, he explained.

In addition to the medical aspect of the mission, Pacific Partnership includes engineering projects as well as conferences and classes with local officials.

Morgan stressed that the Pacific Partnership was “wholly separate" from the Balikatan war games held in Palawan.

Pacific Partnership was created in response to the terrible tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people in 2004.

But the Pentagon admitted the 4-month humanitarian operation is part of the shift of American military focus from the Middle East to the Pacific. That shift was a key part in the White House's new national security strategy rolled out in February by President Obama.

The ship is expected to return to San Diego in mid-September.