Typhoon Haiyan

Disaster diplomacy at play in Haiyan aid response by China, United States

Fast and generous US aid effort is restoring its prestige in Asia, while China's sluggish, modest response is being seen as a missed opportunity

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 3:50am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 November, 2013, 11:14am

The brutal Typhoon Haiyan is having geopolitical effects in the region, with a quick and generous response from the US shoring up its influence and China's sluggish and modest aid effort making a dent in its soft power.

As the two powers continue to compete for regional influence, observers say aid diplomacy is helping Washington offset an earlier blow to its prestige in Asia caused by US President Barack Obama's no-show at two important summits. Beijing, on the other hand, is missing the opportunity to strengthen ties strained by maritime disputes.

Beijing announced its initial offer of US$100,000 on Monday, when international assistance was already pouring into the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan hit on Friday. Another US$ 100,000 would be donated through the Chinese Red Cross. This modest offer from the world's second-biggest economy immediately attracted criticism abroad. Yesterday, Xinhua reported that China would provide an additional 10 million yuan (HK$12.7 million) in relief supplies.

Even after the increase, the amount still pales in comparison to efforts made by the US and another regional rival, Japan.

China and the Philippines have been in diplomatic deadlock over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Among the countries that have such disputes with China, the Philippines has been the most assertive in refuting its claims.

China is actually damaging its own claims by not responding more decisively

While the maritime dispute is considered a key factor holding Beijing back from offering more help to Manila, consideration of domestic public opinion is also having an effect, according to Qiao Mu, the dean of the Centre for International Communications Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

"Nationalist sentiment is very strong in China and Chinese people can be very vindictive. Offering too much help to the Philippines could draw criticisms from the people. So public diplomacy is outweighed by domestic public opinion," Qiao said.

President Xi Jinping made improving regional ties a foreign policy priority after taking power last year.

However, Beijing was missing out on an opportunity to regain trust and influence in the region, said Rory Medcalf, the director of the International Security Programme at the Lowy Institute in Australia. "It's very harmful for China's own interests and its image in the region that it's not responding in a quicker and larger way," he said.

China could have reinforced its claims in the South China Sea by demonstrating that it could do good there, Medcalf said. "China is actually damaging its own claims by not responding more decisively," he said.

Video: Chaos in stricken Philippine city amid wait for aid

While more help might be on the way from Beijing, Medcalf said the first impression would last. "Disaster diplomacy sends very strong signals about which countries are influential in the region, and about co-operation and loyalty among these countries."

Zheng Yongnian, an analyst of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, said: "China has missed an excellent opportunity to show itself as a responsible power and to generate goodwill.

"They still lack strategic thinking," he added.

The decline of American influence in Asia, with China filling the vacuum, has been predicted for years. Asian nations have become more dependent on China to purchase their exports and Chinese companies provide investment and employment.

Yet China lags far behind the US in the sphere of soft power — the winning of hearts and minds through culture, education, and other non-traditional forms of diplomacy, of which emergency assistance is a major component.

Despite Chinese academics' frequent promotion of soft power, Chinese leaders did not really get it, Zheng said. Instead, they continued to rely on the levers of old-fashioned major-nation diplomacy based on economic and military might. "They still think they can get their way through coercion," he said.

China's generosity with the Philippines has not entirely dried up. It pledged US$80,000 to the Philippines last month following a major earthquake there, in addition to this week's pledges. And Xi expressed his sympathy to his Philippine counterpart Benigno Aquino over the latest disaster, although a five full days later and without mentioning assistance.

The US, on the other hand, is shoring up its influence amid doubts about its place in the region. Obama's absence from two regional summits in October was considered a setback to his policy of re-engaging with Asia in the face of a rising China.

Richard Heydarian, a political science lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University in the Philippines, said Washington's response would give a huge boost to its influence in the country.

While the Philippines have had an ambivalent attitude towards Japan, which invaded the Southeast Asian country during the second world war, the presence of Japanese troops could help score points for Tokyo, too.

"I am sure Philippine media will be talking about how helpful the American and Japanese troops are. These are big soft power points for the US and Japan," Heydarian said.

Additional reporting by Associated Press