As the international community rallies to help the victims of Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, who may number in the hundreds of thousands, it is Beijing that has the opportunity to determine how its neighbors in the region view it moving forward.
It is hard to blame China for being distracted in the days immediately during and following the landfall of the largest storm system that the region has seen. Haiyan decided to make an appearance during the highly watched Third Party Plenum of the ruling Communist Party, a rare gathering in which economic decisions are made regarding China’s future. News has slowly been trickling out of the choices made, including that Beijing is now aiming to see “decisive results” from a push for reforms allowing markets to have a stronger determining factor when allocating resources over the next decade. Those efforts, the 205-member Central Committee of the Party determined, would see results no later than 2020.
While that was ongoing, Haiyan crashed into the Philippines, killing as many as 10,000 in one region and flattering cities and towns across the islands that compose the country. In the wake of the epic destruction seen in the aftermath of Haiyan, the international community has rushed to provide aid to the millions affected. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is already working overtime with other relevant agencies to provide for the estimated 800,000 who have been internally displaced since the storm. The United States has already launched the USS George Washington aircraft carrier and its associated strike group to assist, and is readying three of the Marine Corps’ amphibious ships in the region to deploy to the Philippines in the next 48 hours.
That doesn’t include the monetary pledges that economic heavyweights in the area have offered, including the $20 million in humanitarian assistance the United States has put forward. Japan alone has donated more than $9.6 million, Australia another $10 million. In contrast, China’s response to date seems miserly in comparison, especially given its position as the second-largest economy in the world. So far, the Chinese government has only pledged $100,000 to the victims of the super typhoon, with another $100,000 to be sent through the Chinese Red Cross.
The extremely low number is not particularly surprising, given the rocky relationship that Beijing and Manila have had in recent years. At the core of the dispute between the two is ownership over a set of islands in the South China Sea, known as the Spratly islands, which would greatly shift the naval boundaries of the country who wins out. Complicating matters further, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia also stake claims to the islands and their possible off-shore reserves of natural gas. While less volatile that the dispute between China and Japan over a different set of islands, the Spratlys are clearly on the mind of Beijing.
Not everyone agrees with the decision to offer such a minimum initial response The Global Times — a Chinese newspaper run as an English-language subsidiary of the state-run People’s Daily — issued an op-ed on Tuesday, urging Beijing to reach out to the Philippines despite the Spratly islands dispute. “China, as a responsible power, should participate in relief operations to assist a disaster-stricken neighboring country, no matter whether it’s friendly or not,” it writes. “China’s international image is of vital importance to its interests. If it snubs Manila this time, China will suffer great losses.”
“The Chinese leadership has missed an opportunity to show its magnanimity,” said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong told Reuters. “While still offering aid to the typhoon victims, it certainly reflects the unsatisfactory state of relations (with Manila).”
All of this particularly matters not only because of the islands dispute, but also due to the goodwill China desperately needs in the region. As part of its much heralded “pivot to Asia,” the U.S. has been shoring up support among its allies, including the Philippines, in what many analysts have attributed to countering China’s rise. This has included supporting international mediation on the islands disputes on the one hand and increasing military presence in the Pacific — including a new Marine base in Darwin, Australia — on the other.
That support and basing is what allowed the U.S. to react so quickly to Haiyan and what China fears could be used against it in the future. The devastation of Haiyan presents an opportunity for China to win over many of its neighbors through the use of its growing wealth and influence in a show of goodwill, should it choose to accept that course. If not, the risk of further alienating it’s neighbors is extremely high, a course that could prove troublesome for Beijing down the line.