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Typhoon Haiyan, the Philippines, the United States, and China

by Joshua Kurlantzick
November 13, 2013

Evacuated residents prepare to get onto a U.S. military plane at Tacloban airport in central Philippines on November 13, 2013, five days after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the area. (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters) Evacuated residents prepare to get onto a U.S. military plane at Tacloban airport in central Philippines on November 13, 2013, five days after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the area. (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters)


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 rebalancing 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 rebalancing, 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.

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  • Posted by Dave Takaki

    China will learn from this faux pas… and both the Foreign Ministry and the PLA will “study” this intently and ‘plan’ for the next ‘disaster opportunity’… this will happen, mark my words

    Disaster Diplomacy has become a term in the International Relations field but the moniker has done little to contribute to efficacy in disasters or diplomatic skill sets. Admittedly an evolving concept, Disaster Diplomacy seeks effective humanitarian action strategies even while gauging the diplomatic effect or potential benefit and or cost. But advancing this initiative requires clarity, and the international relations community, especially at government levels, has applied such efforts inconsistently and has touted benefits or costs in an ad hoc fashion, based on event and perceptions. If the State Department is to take the lead in this vital FP arena, it must begin to address this ambiguity and inconsistency, not to be locked into a consistent response mode, but to understand clearly why it proposes action or inaction. Like action, doing nothing is a decision.

    1. Disaster diplomacy, narrowly defined, captures only a partial aspect of the more complex set of interactions that characterise organisational and inter-organisational learning induced by DR management processes.

    2. Information flow is crucial to enabling actors at the micro level of households, neighbourhoods, and cities to adapt their performance in accordance with changes at state, national and international levels to reduce hazards and losses from disaster.

    3. Disaster – or threat of disaster – provides opportunities for enhancing collaboration among nations, but the properties and mechanisms for adaptation must either exist or be developed for effective results.

    4. Creative diplomacy for disaster reduction is most effective at the `edge of chaos’, that region where there is sufficient structure to hold and exchange information, but sufficient flexibility to adapt new alternatives to meet urgent needs.

    5. Maintaining creativity for disaster reduction as well as developing cooperation among states perceived to be in conflict requires a broader conception of their shared goals. It also requires practical engagement by a range of local, state/provincial, national and international public organizations, as well as private and nonprofit organizations in achieving this clearly articulated set of common goals.

    FP Realists and Traditionalists scoff, but my intent is to question the paradigm. Many are familiar with the term Track II Diplomacy. What the service personnel in Aceh closer to the action did was put footprints on the ground and in the air a bird looking for those in need flown by people equally humble and proud to serve.

    State has to demonstrate to DoD that even with the risks involved in providing Humanitarian Relief, especially addressing the avalanche of emergency medical assistance of fleeing citizens, and yes, even combatants regardless of identity, is a powerful message to a world that still watches the US military intently, frequently expecting no good to come of our presence, much less activity. When American service personnel are seen by the world protecting the vulnerable, including combatants, the message is powerful, and for the recipients of this assistance, immutable. Why this is so reflects a common human value for the protector, saver of lives. It is imbedded in the world’s religious faiths. An example:

    … and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. – Al Quran 5:32

    The US military response to assist the people of Aceh Province, Indonesia in 2004 illustrates this very human response to timely assistance. Aceh was a province in revolt from Jakarta at the tine of this Indian Ocean disaster. Local opinion of the US improved as a result of this action. Disaster relief presents the American military as a person, actualizing and yes, humanizing the soldier, ablating prior perceptions of US military might and its application.

    Reflecting this shift in perception, a poll by the Heritage Foundation determined that “in the first substantial shift of public opinion in the Muslim world since the beginning of the US global war on terrorism, more people in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, now favor American efforts against terrorism than oppose them.”

    A paper by Yim, et al. in the interests of saving time,

    “This model is clearly based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For example, UDHR states in Article 3 “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”. A document on “disaster rights” would incorporate this principle in the context of disaster prevention. Similarly, UDHR’s preamble speaks of “freedom from fear”. A natural consequence is freedom from fear of disaster. The greatest challenge relates to effectively communicating, formally adopting, and strictly enforcing any document of this nature. We would not wish to lose these principles on just another piece of paper, which everyone says “Wonderful!” signs, and then forgets.”

    In the American experience, the classic example of military operations other than war directed towards humanitarian relief while furthering the strategic interests of the United States is the Berlin Airlift. The average American soldier, airman, marine, or sailor feels good about MOOTW operations that protect or save civilians. Many remember these experiences as highlights in their military careers. When confronted with danger during MOOTW operations, they do not hesitate. This is who they are, and what they do.

    The world of international relations is evolving rapidly; this reflects the broader horizon in many areas of cooperation, changes in digital communications, and not least, the nature of conflict and warfare in the 21st century where objectives and centers of gravity are both evolving and shifting.

    China’s PLA is embracing Humanitarian Assistance, and is edging towards more involvement in Disaster Relief overseas. PLA medical personnel have been engaging in the developing world for quite some time now. This is not a reflection of the softer side of the PLA inasmuch as broadening the scope of engagement. Understand that the PLA has a historical legacy of HA during its civil war with the Nationalists and in the process of developing a People’s War doctrine, winning “hearts and minds” reflects the non-kinetic aspect of warfare from the Chinese perspective. Even with the Revolution in Military Affairs, this valuable insight has retained currency.

    Recently, Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng observed, “An aircraft carrier is a weapons platform; it can be used for offensive or defensive purposes. It can also be used to maintain global peace and for rescue and relief work”. Two more carriers are under construction at the Jiangnan shipyard in Shanghai. Analyst Chinese Que Tianshu notes,

    “the disaster diplomacy as a new diplomatic instrument has greatly galvanized the diplomatic theories and practices, transformed people’s perception of the traditional national security and power of nations and posed a challenge to a nation’s diplomacy in terms of information and research ability, crisis management and diplomatic response. Chinese disaster diplomacy is yet in its initial stage and confronting many difficulties mainly stemming from the issues that the interest of national security is threatened, diplomatic system has yet to be improved, lack of methodologies and lack of communication. China should expand diplomatic instrument, make systematic innovations, expand diplomatic space and shape a good national image.”

    Li Jie, a researcher with the PLA Navy’s Academic Research Institute recently commented that China will engage in DR and HA operations far from home,

    “The navy’s aviation forces and ships can not form a
    coordinated power in the high seas,” Yin said, adding that the navy learned from task forces deployed to the Somali waters and Libya that an aircraft carrier is a must to better protect national security and interests.”

    A somewhat cynical concern this writer harbors is that the prevailing view of US foreign policy in much of the globe is hegemonic military might. This perception that US policy is coercive must change; it is in our strategic interests. I surmise that China’s Foreign Ministry, if not the PLA, sees HA and DR operations as a means of distinguishing Chinese military power from that of the United States. Lt Col Tania M. Chacho, currently on the faculty at the USMA West Point, writes in a 2009 paper, “Zhang Baohui, an Assistant Professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, postulates that the Chinese believe that the decline of the United States as a global power is due to an American loss of soft power.”

    A strategic shaping of international perceptions of China and its PLA, the South China Sea notwithstanding, in a timely fashion in deliberate contrast to prevailing perceptions of American ethos cannot be discounted. If accomplished, it will be difficult for the US to either knock off China’s “white hat”, much less improve US moral standing once the perception is set.

    The United States possesses the infrastructure to expedite. Along with being the globe’s pre-eminent logistician, DoD also has the supply management skills resident in the Defense Logistics Agency. If the Unites States decides to act, it should not discount asking for civilian and military medical and support personnel in the interests of expediency and public relations.

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