As the USS George Washington aircraft carrier sailed out of Hong Kong on Tuesday for the Philippines to help the devastated nation recover from typhoon Haiyan, China was unveiling its own relief effort: a donation of $100,000 in cash.
The US response to the catastrophe – sending nine navy ships to help the relief operations – stands in stark contrast to China’s donation, which amounts to just 2 per cent of what South Korea has offered the Philippines.
Beijing was never likely to send huge amounts of money to Manila because of a bitter dispute over contested territory in the South China Sea. But experts say the Chinese military – despite rapidly improving capabilities – has a long way to go before it can perform overseas relief operations at the level that the US, Japan and Australia do now.
“They just don’t have the hardware, the equipment, the training that the US, Australia, Japan and Thailand have,” says Timothy Keating, a retired admiral who oversaw US forces in Asia as head of Pacific Command.
The US has for decades helped its allies and others in the Pacific respond to disasters, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan.
James Stavridis, a retired admiral and dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School, says the US has been focusing more on such operations in recent years.
“We have always taken that kind of approach but over the past 10 years, we have put more emphasis on it,” says Mr Stavridis, a former head of US Southern Command.
In the Philippines, the US mission – named Operation Damayan, which means sympathy and help in Tagalog – will see thousands of troops use ships, helicopters and planes to help the victims. And in a move that underscores China’s absence, Japan is sending a record 1,000 Self Defence Forces to help the relief operations.
William Fallon, a former head of US Pacific Command, says that in 2004 when the Indian Ocean earthquake occurred, the Chinese military had “virtually nothing” in terms of the capabilities needed to respond to a disaster of that scale overseas. He says they have since improved their capabilities, but remain far behind the US in terms of “scope and scale”.
“China has been developing its human assistance and disaster relief capabilities over the past decade, including the construction of hospital ships and formation of international rescue teams,” says Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “However, at present it is not even close to matching the . . . capabilities of the United States.”
China unveiled its first hospital ship, called “Peace Ark” in 2009. It has sent the vessel on operations to the Gulf of Aden where the Chinese navy has been co-operating in international anti-piracy operations. Mr Keating says he would love to see China offer to send the ship to the Philippines.
While the US response to Taiyan is widely seen as a humanitarian mission, it has underscored its presence in the Pacific, which has been boosted over the past two years as part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which involves deploying a greater proportion of US navy ships to the Pacific.
Mr Keating says operations like Danaman are “profoundly important” for US soft power. Mr Fallon adds that the US response “demonstrates the value of forward deployment in the western Pacific”.
While China’s response this time may have been calibrated by its dispute with Manila, some analysts say Beijing is wary about deploying its navy for geopolitical reasons.
“China has learnt that disaster relief and humanitarian missions are good for soft power, international image, as well as honing long-range deployment skills,” says Gary Li, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime. “However, every time the Chinese military does anything at all, a whole host of ‘what are they up to’ commentary goes up in the west.”
Mr Li says “China threat” hawks almost always cast Chinese humanitarian missions as an encroachment by China in certain regions and “a wish to supplant the US as a naval hegemon”. The two former heads of US Pacific Command and Mr Stavridis all argue that China would benefit from taking a more active role.
“It would be a wonderful opportunity to work together,” says Mr Fallon.
While some have criticised the Chinese response to the disaster in the Philippines, Su Hao, a professor at China Foreign Affairs University, says China should be given more credit for putting aside its dispute with Manila.
“China has let bygones be bygones and has still offered help,” says Mr Su. “China was also hit by the typhoon . . . but we still used our limited funds to help the Philippines, which shows China is a responsible world power.”Source: Financial Times – Philippines relief effort lays bare China limitations
- Philippines expects early U.N. ruling on sea dispute with China (chinadailymail.com)
- Typhoon Haiyan response highlights diplomacy of aid (abc.net.au)
- China to Philippines: Here, Have a Measly $100,000 in Aid (world.time.com)
- Sinosphere Blog: China Offers Relatively Modest Aid for Typhoon Victims (sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com)
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- China’s meagre aid to the Philippines could dent its image (trust.org)
- Japan readies 1,000 troops, naval ships for Philippines relief (trust.org)
- China Holds a Grudge, Skimps on Aid to Philippines (newser.com)
- Pentagon orders aircraft carrier, ships to Philippines (channelnewsasia.com)
- US sends Navy ships, 20 million in aid to Philippines (en.trend.az)
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