Strategic opportunity in Philippine crisis
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - External support from the United States and other strategic allies has been decisive in delivering aid to Typhoon Haiyan victims in the central Philippines, with American aid agencies, aircrafts and on-the-ground troops assisting affected communities that local authorities were unable to reach.
The deployment of the US aircraft carrier USS George Washington represented a major foreign policy statement, underscoring Washington's bid to serve as an anchor of Asia-Pacific stability and source of crucial assistance during massive natural disasters. At least 80 American aircraft, including 12 V-22 Ospreys and 14 Sea Hawk helicopters, have delivered desperately needed food, water, and medicine.
Over 4,000 people have been killed and another 1,600 are still
missing in the typhoon's destructive wake. The United Nations estimates 13 million people have been adversely affected, with more than four million left homeless. Initial estimates put the total cost of reconstruction at over US$5 billion, according to the government's economic planning department.
Total US assistance has risen to $37 million in recent days. About 15 US Agency for International Development disaster response specialists and 9,500 US military personnel have provided emergency shelter materials and hygiene kits for 100,000 people, 55 metric tons of food assistance for 99,000 people, and water containers for 72,000 people, according to a US White House release. US personnel have also restored the worst hit Tacloban City's municipal water system, providing clean water to as many as 200,000 people.
With limited capabilities to reach far-flung communities and islands devastated by the storm, and basic infrastructure in the worst hit areas in tatters, Manila has been forced to rely on the goodwill of dozens of nations to provide much-needed aid to millions of affected people. The Philippines' strategic allies such as Australia, Japan, and the US have been among the top sources of financial aid in the wake of the disaster. All three countries have stepped up their strategic ties with the Philippines, offering deeper defense cooperation in light of rising territorial tensions with China in the South China Sea.
The US's leading contribution to the ongoing relief operations has, at least temporarily, sidelined critics who earlier questioned Washington's strategic motivations and commitment to regional stability. It has also served as a public relations coup for Washington's so-called "pivot" policy towards Asia, allowing the US to cast the shift of military assets to the region as a benign effort to enhance allies' ability to cope with humanitarian crises and non-traditional security challenges.
"One of the key pillars of our strategic defense guidance is ... to build partner capacity ... [and] invest in our allies and our partnerships, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region," US Pentagon press secretary George Little said in describing the broader strategic significance of the US's humanitarian operations in the Philippines. "The goal is not to have new, permanent bases for the US military, but to have occasional rotational presences so we can work together with allies and partners in the region to address problems like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief."
US President Barack Obama's no-show at a series of important Asian summits held in early October sparked a spate of criticism against the US's perceived inability to put its own house in order and demonstrate a stronger commitment to the region. Much of that fallout has now dissipated as the US is once again, similar to the 2004 tsunami disaster, the leading force behind a large-scale humanitarian operation.
US leadership in regional relief operations has improved its regional standing. Before the storm, Manila and Washington were negotiating a new framework agreement to allow for an expanded rotational US military presence in the Philippines. It's still unclear what impact the US's humanitarian assistance will have on the talks, which recently snagged on issues related to ownership of US-provided equipment and materials on Philippine bases, among other issues.
In another significant geopolitical twist, Japan has followed in the US's footsteps by playing a key role in the ongoing humanitarian operation. The Shinzo Abe administration has raised its aid package to the Philippines from an initial amount of $10 million to $30 million. At Manila's request, Tokyo initially dispatched 50 members of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to provide logistical and medical assistance.
Japan is poised to send an 1,180 additional SDF forces, which if dispatched would be the single largest foreign relief operation ever undertaken by its armed forces. Two Japanese vessels from the Maritime Self-Defense Force carrying trucks, transport helicopters, and about 700 personnel are also joining the relief operations.
The Abe administration's stepped-up humanitarian assistance not only underscores its deepening strategic partnership with the Philippines, but also signals Tokyo's aim to boost the SDF's international profile as a force for peace and stability, especially in lieu of Abe's plan to amend the country's pacifist constitution.
While the US and Japan have boosted their soft power in the Philippines and the wider region, China, which is currently locked in a bitter territorial conflict with the Philippines, has been more modest in its pledges of support. It initially offered $100,000 in financial assistance through the Chinese Red Cross. As the world's second largest economy, and after offering multi-billion infrastructure and investment deals to Southeast Asian neighbors earlier this year, China was hard-pressed to explain its relatively small pledge.
To avert criticism, Beijing eventually added another $1.4 million in humanitarian supplies, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang stating somewhat defensively that "an overwhelming majority of Chinese people are sympathetic with the people of the Philippines".
The timing and circumstances of China's augmented humanitarian pledge was in clear response to the US's and Japan's high-profile humanitarian operations. Some analysts now wonder whether the comparative responses to the disaster will have long-term strategic implications for the region's balance of power, including through wider acceptance of a stronger US military presence. It has also underscored the sensitive nature of China-Philippines bilateral relations.
The longer term challenge for Manila will be the multi-billion dollar reconstruction and rehabilitation of devastated communities. China, with its huge financial reserves and diverse array of Chinese state-owned companies with experience in international infrastructure projects, represents a potential rich source of soft loans and infrastructural assistance. It is unclear, however, whether the two sides can overcome existing bilateral tensions to fulfill such a partnership.
Given the dire situation in many affected areas, the overall security situation has deteriorated, necessitating a stronger presence of armed forces to ensure the efficient and orderly distribution of relief goods. The Philippine armed forces, suffering from decades of under-investment and bureaucratic corruption, has shown its extremely limited capacity to respond decisively. The Philippine Air Force, for instance, only has three C-130 aircrafts at its disposal, with the Philippine Navy's antiquated fleet taking significant time to deliver aid.
Despite the Philippines' impressive economic growth in recent years, with annual gross domestic product growth hovering around 6-7%, there has been only minimal improvement in the infrastructure landscape, leaving many rural communities outside the industrialized regions in the north without access to reliable electricity, bridges, ports, and roads. The typhoon was a wake-up call to the Philippines' vulnerabilities, ranging from the underinvestment in infrastructure to the capacity-deficit of its armed forces.
The humanitarian crisis has laid bare the structural weaknesses of the Philippine state and highlighted its continued dependence on external allies in times of need. While the crisis has demonstrated Manila has strong and reliable strategic partners, it has also allowed the US and Japan to flex their military muscles vis-a-vis China and underscore their determination to serve as a strategic anchor in a region vexed by natural disasters and unresolved territorial disputes.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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