Typhoon Haiyan: What’s a Superpower to Do?

The U.S. dispatches a flotilla of aid, while China barely lifts a finger to help its neighbor

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Josh Diddams / U.S. Marines

U.S. Marines arrive in the Philippines to help with typhoon relief

Washington is 8,600 miles (13,840 km) from the Philippines. Beijing is 1,800 miles (2,900 km) away. Yet while American aid is flowing across the Pacific to the hard-hit archipelago, where thousands have died, Chinese help is barely trickling across the South China Sea in the wake of last weekend’s typhoon.

More than 250 Marines are on the ground in the Philippines, supported by five C-130 cargo planes and four V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, with more aircraft on their way. The leathernecks have already delivered more than 50 tons of water, food and medicine. The carrier U.S.S. George Washington is slated to arrive off the Philippines’ coast on Wednesday from a port call in Hong Kong, with an air wing of more than 80 aircraft, including 11 helicopters, and the ability to produce 400,000 gallons (1.5 million liters) of fresh water daily. U.S. emergency shelters are coming from Dubai. Also steaming toward the ravaged nation are the cruisers U.S.S. Antietam and U.S.S. Cowpens, the destroyers U.S.S. Lassen, U.S.S. McCampbell and U.S.S. Mustin, plus the supply ship U.S.N.S. Charles Drew.

Meanwhile, China has pledged $100,000 (plus another $100,000 from the Chinese Red Cross).

Is that any way for a wannabe superpower to act?

The U.S. is the world’s largest economy, with an annual gross domestic product of $16 trillion. That’s double the size of China’s official GDP figure, but actually only 25% bigger when adjusted for purchasing parity. In fact, according to a March report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, China will eclipse the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy in 2016.

China’s stinginess (in comparison, the U.S., beyond its military moves, has donated $20 million, with Japan and Australia giving about $10 million apiece) highlights what it means to be a superpower in an interconnected world. Even the official Chinese press is beginning to weigh in on the yuan-pinching ways of the Middle Kingdom.

“China shouldn’t be absent in the international relief efforts. Instead, it should offer help within the compass of its power, given China’s international position and its location of facing the Philippines across the sea,” said a Tuesday editorial in the People’s Daily, an official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. “China’s international image is of vital importance to its interests. If it snubs Manila this time, China will suffer great losses.”

China has been engaged in a territorial dispute for decades with the Philippines over the South China Sea that separates them (it also has such issues with Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam). The China-Philippine squabble has become increasingly tense amid bulked-up navies and the hunt for underwater energy sources.

That no doubt accounts for some of Beijing’s lackluster response.
It doesn’t take long for news of such meager action to spread around the globe. “Fundraising drives are under way, and about two dozen countries have announced relief efforts — though the efforts planned by some, such as China’s pledge of $100,000, seem grossly inadequate,” a Washington Post editorial noted on Tuesday.
The message apparently is seeping into the Chinese consciousness. Qin Gang, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, said Beijing might give more. “China has also suffered from the disaster,” he said, “so we very much understand and sympathize with the current hardships that the Philippine people are facing.” Chinese media reported seven people in southern China had been killed by the weakened storm. (Philippine President Benigno Aquino III scaled back the estimated death toll in his country from an initial 10,000 to 2,500 on Tuesday.)

Meanwhile, resurrecting a U.S. military presence in the Philippines — Manila kicked out U.S. troops more than 20 years ago — is a subject of negotiations between the Philippines and Washington. It’s all part of the U.S. military’s “pivot” to Asia, which has captured Beijing’s attention.

“We are in discussions with the government of the Philippines right now on greater access for U.S. forces,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said on Tuesday. “The goal is not to have new permanent bases for the U.S. military, but it’s to enable rotational presences so that we can work together with allies and partners in the region to address problems like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. The goal in this region and elsewhere is to help build partner capacity. That’s in our interest, and it’s in other countries’ interests as well.”

Well, except maybe for China’s.