As more news of the extensive destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan rolls in—some storm experts are saying that it is the most powerful typhoon ever to hit land—I have spoken with a number of reporters in the United States and Asia about how the relief effort will be impacted by U.S. relations with the Philippines and the Philippines’ relationships with other major regional powers. The United States and the Philippines, a relationship always fraught with the challenges of former colony/colonizer history and ties between Filipinos in the United States and the Philippines, has clearly been on the upswing over the past five years. The White House would like to credit its re-balancing of U.S. forces and diplomacy to Asia as the driver behind this warming, although I would argue that the Philippines simply was driven to re-embracing Washington by China’s behavior in the South China Sea, and by the rapid realization in Manila of how horribly antiquated the Philippines’ navy was. President Benigno Aquino’s III’s drive against corruption also generally has improved the investment climate in the country and led to greater interest from American companies.
Still, despite the upswing I don’t think the U.S. relief effort in Leyte—$20 million in humanitarian aid and an aircraft carrier, several cruisers, and other ships that will help with relief—has much to do with the re-balancing, or pivot. Washington would deliver a similar relief effort to any country in Southeast Asia with which it had a decent relationship. The U.S. relief effort in Indonesia in 2004 after the Asian tsunami was far larger, despite the fact that Washington and Jakarta at that time had only lukewarm ties, as compared to the treaty alliance between Washington and Manila. The tsunami also was the rare natural disaster that significantly changed domestic and international politics. It helped pave the way to peace in Aceh, and the American relief did help change the image of the United States among some in Indonesia. As Jonah Blank wrote in USA Today :
“The goodwill the tsunami relief brought the U.S. is incalculable. Nearly a decade later, the effort may rank as one of the most concrete reasons Southeast Asian nations trust the long-term U.S. commitment to a strategy of “Asian re-balancing.”
This relief effort, though critical, is not likely to impact U.S.-Philippines relations significantly, since ties are already close. However, I do believe that China’s minimal contribution to relief clearly stems from acrimony between Manila and Beijing, and is another sign of Beijing’s departure from its 1990s/early 2000s soft power strategy of investing in building long-term ties in Southeast Asia while minimizing disagreements. China so far has offered the Philippines around $200,000 in disaster aid, with vague promises of more to come, a small sum compared to its 2004 relief efforts after the tsunami. This announcement comes after Beijing essentially revoked Aquino’s permission to attend a prominent China-Southeast Asia trade fair in China earlier in 2013.
The aid stinginess is a mistake for Beijing, a squandering of a chance to look like a regional power, a generous country that puts aside disputes in times of humanitarian crisis. Surprisingly, the ultra-nationalist Global Times seems to realize this, noting in an editorial today that China should offer assistance to the Philippines despite disputes over the South China Sea.