TYPHOON HAIYAN US gives, China withholds in Philippine crisis
By Noel Tarrazona
ZAMBOANGA CITY - As the Philippines struggles to respond to the damage wrought by Typhoon Haiyan, the pending arrival of the United States aircraft carrier George Washington will be crucial to the survival and rehabilitation of millions of affected Filipinos. The US carrier and its accompanying strike group and more than 20 helicopters promise to expedite delivery of badly needed aid, particularly to remote areas isolated by storm-demolished infrastructure. 
The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has earmarked some US$20 million in aid and assistance for survivors, including crucial airdropped deliveries of food, medicine and hygiene kits. The US military is leading search and rescue
missions in many areas and will be instrumental in the delivery of United Nations' and other humanitarian organizations' aid. Over 100 US marines are already on the ground and as many as 2,000 are expected.
As of Tuesday, official figures indicated 1,774 people had perished in the storm, while more than nine million others have been adversely affected, many of them left homeless without sufficient food and water. Typhoon Haiyan was the largest storm ever recorded to hit land, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction that has overwhelmed under-equipped and ill-prepared Filipino authorities.
While the US is front and center of the global response to the natural disaster, China's response has been comparatively muted. Beijing has initially announced $100,000 in cash to assist with relief efforts. Chinese Foreign Secretary Qin Qang was evasive to media questions about Beijing's small offering considering the scale of the disaster. Analysts believe the modest amount has been influenced by recent bilateral tensions over contested territories in the South China Sea and Manila's resort to international arbitration against Beijing through the United Nations.
The limited offering comes at a time Beijing has responded generously to other disaster-hit regional countries. For instance, China offered Pakistan $1.5 million in assistance in the wake a recent deadly earthquake. In 2011, Beijing pledged $1 million in humanitarian aid after a comparatively much smaller tropical storm devastated parts of the southern Philippines - an offer made before the two countries squared off at sea over the Scarborough Shoal the following year.
As China and the US compete for regional influence, the US is making opportunities from regional crises. The US's superior power projection capabilities have allowed it to play a frontline role in responding to humanitarian disasters, a comparative strategic advantage vis-a-vis China it has leveraged to diplomatic effect ever since the December 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. China, in comparison, is still a bit player in global responses to regional disasters due to its inferior military capabilities.
Geopolitics have underlined the two countries' divergent responses to recent humanitarian crises in the Philippines. Washington's robust response comes against the backdrop of ongoing negotiations towards a new bilateral strategic framework agreement that would allow US troops, aircraft and battleships greater access to Philippine-controlled military bases across the country.
Many analysts view the framework agreement as a potential important beachhead for the US's so-called "pivot" policy, a gambit that envisions positioning 60% of the US total naval assets in Asia. The unstated imperative behind the policy is to counter-balance China's rising regional influence and territorial assertiveness, including over contested areas in key navigation lanes in the South China Sea.
Before the storm, US-Philippine negotiations had bogged down on issues of ultimate ownership of equipment and installations provided by the US, among other undisclosed areas. Nationalistic protests against a larger US military footprint have pointed to the various downsides of US military bases in other regional countries like Japan and South Korea, and perceived abuses perpetuated at the US's previous Philippine-situated bases at Subic and Clark. They have argued the US is exploiting Manila's territorial dispute with Beijing for its own strategic purposes.
Framework supporters had hoped US President Barack Obama's scheduled visit to Manila last month would break the deadlock, but the cancellation of his trip due to the government shutdown in Washington has further stalled the talks. Officials have said since that the negotiations are at a "crucial" stage, without indicating whether the lack of agreement on outstanding issues threatens to scupper the proposed deal.
While the US's assistance to the ongoing typhoon relief efforts has been high-profile, the government in Washington played a more behind-the-scenes role in the humanitarian response to the recent rebel siege of Zamboanga City. USAID donated at least $600,000 in assistance, including water, sleeping materials, food and portable toilets, to help provide for over 100,000 refugees caught in the crossfire between Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Philippine security forces.
"The United States has always been there for the Philippines in time of need and we continue that tradition today for those suffering in Zamboanga," US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas said at the time.
In a hint of how a new bilateral security arrangement could work, the US also provided six high-speed small riverine crafts (SURCs) to engage battle-tested rebels in mangrove-covered coastal terrain. The US vessels reportedly helped security forces to capture scores of hardcore rebel snipers that was key to subduing the rebellion.
The US is clearly trying to win local hearts and minds for a stronger military presence through its humanitarian assistance. Before Typhoon Haiyan and the Zamboanga siege, local resistance to US troops stationed in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao was rising. Last year an estimated 10,000 protesters marched in Zamboanga City calling for the outright ouster of US soldiers, claiming that armed conflict and terrorism had only worsened since greater numbers of US soldiers were based on a six-month rotational basis in the region.
Washington-based commentators are open about the real politick calculations behind the US's disaster relief operations.
"Deploying military resources for disaster relief is a remarkably effective - and inexpensive - investment in the future," wrote Jonah Blank, former director of South and Southeast Asia on the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The goodwill the tsunami relief brought the US is incalculable. Nearly a decade later, the effort may rank as one of the most concrete reasons Southeast Asian nations trust the long-term US commitment to a strategy of 'Asian rebalancing'."
Whether the US's response to Typhoon Haiyan will generate similar diplomatic dividends is less clear in this era of heightened competition between China and the US for regional dominance. Knowing it cannot compete with the US military's ability to deliver humanitarian assistance, and at a time of bilateral tensions with Manila, Beijing has decided to give the US-led relief efforts in the Philippines a strategic miss. But as the US aims to leverage the disaster for its wider strategic ends in the Philippines, future storms with China lie on the horizon.
1. A US Navy statement said: "The USS George Washington, which carries 5,000 Sailors and more than 60 aircraft, will be accompanied by her strike group with the cruisers USS Antietam (CG 54) and USS Cowpens (CG 63), and the destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89). USS Lassen (DDG 82) got underway from Hong Kong yesterday. Embarked on board USS George Washington, is Carrier Air Wing Five (CVW-5). The supply ship USNS Charles Drew (T-AKE-10) is already underway and will rendezvous with the group as they get closer. ...
"The strike group and her air wing, which includes 21 helicopters, bring significant medical capabilities and the ability to make and deliver fresh clean water.
"Air Wing 5 is a collection of aircraft designed to perform various functions including disaster relief and includes the "Golden Falcons" of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 12 flying the MH-60S Seahawk; and the "Saberhawks" of Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 77 flying the MH-60R Seahawk helicopters. See USS George Washington Now Underway for the Philippines, By U.S. 7th Fleet Public Affairs,
November 12, 2013.
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