Who is the Philippines' True Friend?
Who can help the Philippines?
China has been troubling its neighbors lately, and that makes it easier for President Obama to court Asian nations.
CEBU, the Philippines — The American aircraft carrier George Washington has arrived, its 5,000 sailors and 80 aircraft already busy ferrying relief supplies to storm-battered survivors, and the United States has committed an initial $20 million in humanitarian assistance. Japan is dispatching a naval force of 1,000 troops, in what officials say is that country’s largest ever disaster-relief deployment. Also on the way: the Illustrious, a British aircraft carrier stocked with transport planes, medical experts and $32 million worth of aid.
The outpouring of foreign assistance for the hundreds of thousands left homeless and hungry by Typhoon Haiyan is shaping up to be a monumental show of international largess — and a not-so-subtle dose of one-upmanship directed at the region’s fastest-rising power, China.
China, which has its own newly commissioned aircraft carrier and ambitions of displacing the United States, the dominant naval power in the Pacific, has been notably penurious. Beijing increased its total contribution to the relief effort to $1.6 million on Thursday after its initial pledge of $100,000 was dismissed as stingy, even by some state-backed news media in the country.
The typhoon, described as the most devastating natural calamity to hit the Philippines in recent history, is emerging as a showcase for the soft-power contest in Asia. The geopolitical tensions have been stoked by China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, and heightened by American efforts to reassert its influence in the region.
China has showered aid on countries it considers close friends, becoming the largest lender in Africa, rushing to help Pakistan after an earthquake in September and showing a more humanitarian side to its neighbors in Asia.
But the typhoon struck hardest at the country China considers its biggest nemesis in the legal, diplomatic and sometimes military standoff over control of tiny but strategic islands in the South China Sea.
Over the past year, Chinese and Philippine vessels have faced off over a reef called Scarborough Shoal, and the Philippines has angered China by taking the dispute to an international arbitration tribunal. It did not help that the Philippines earlier this year said it would accept a gift of 10 coast guard vessels from Japan and voiced support for Tokyo’s plans to strengthen its military ties in the region, or that it is in discussions with the United States about hosting more American troops there.
The relief operation in the central Philippines to help those affected by Typhoon Haiyan is making progress following the arrival of a US aircraft carrier and its escort of two cruisers.
More victims are receiving help but a BBC correspondent at the scene says there is still no large-scale food distribution taking place.
The first mass burials have been carried out in Tacloban.
The confirmed death toll, more than 2,300, is expected to continue rising.
More than 11 million people have been affected by the typhoon, according to the UN.
The top US commander in the Philippines told the BBC that US military support would be on an unprecedented scale.
The USS George Washington, carrying 5,000 crew and moored off the east of Samar island, will expand search-and-rescue operations and provide a platform for helicopters to move supplies, the White House said.
Two US destroyers are already in the Philippines and other US vessels are expected to arrive in about a week, the US Navy said.
Pallets loaded with food and water have been taken from the aircraft carrier to Tacloban, the capital of badly hit Leyte province, and Guiuan, which was also devastated by the typhoon, on Samar's east coast.
The challenge for China comes shortly after the United States appeared to suffer a setback of its own in the contest for Pacific influence. President Obama had to cancel a high-profile visit to the region this fall to grapple with the fiscal shutdown in the United States, an event that seemed to many in Asia to showcase American dysfunction. So when the typhoon struck an old ally, the Pentagon did not waste much time offering a robust show of assistance.
“There is no other military in the world, there is no other navy in the world, that can do what we can do,” one American official said.
Michael Kulma, an expert on East Asia at the Asia Society in New York, said the Chinese reluctance to give more aid could hurt its chances to make a favorable impression in the country.
“There was an opportunity, right up front, for China to make a commitment,” he said. “At the end of the day it could be that the Chinese end up giving more. But on the front end of it, they didn’t stand out.”
At the same time, the relief efforts by the United States could give a lift to its already strong influence in the Philippines.
Despite its longtime alliance with the United States, the Philippines has been tentative over what Washington sees as the country’s role in its so-called Asian pivot, which includes efforts to increase the presence of American troops on Philippine soil.
But the American relief effort — which is receiving a lot of news media attention in the country — might wear away at some of that reluctance, a legacy of the years when the Philippines was an American colony.
Already, some in Tacloban said they would not mind American boots on the ground there temporarily, if it would help.
The Cabbage Strategy of China
China is currently in disputes with several of its neighbors, and the Chinese have become decidedly more willing to wield a heavy stick. There is a growing sense that they have been waiting a long time to flex their muscles and that that time has finally arrived. “Nothing in China happens overnight,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, the director of Asia-Pacific programs at the United States Institute of Peace, said. “Any move you see was planned and prepared for years, if not more. So obviously this maritime issue is very important to China.”
It is also very important to the United States, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made clear at a gathering of the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean) in Hanoi in July 2010. Clinton declared that freedom of navigation in the South China Sea was a “national interest” of the United States, and that “legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features,” which could be taken to mean that China’s nine-dash line was illegitimate. The Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, chafed visibly, left the meeting for an hour and returned only to launch into a long, vituperative speech about the danger of cooperation with outside powers.
President Obama and his representatives have reiterated America’s interest in the region ever since. The Americans pointedly refuse to take sides in the sovereignty disputes. But China’s behavior as it becomes more powerful, along with freedom of navigation and control over South China Sea shipping lanes, will be among the major global political issues of the 21st century. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, of the $5.3 trillion in global trade that transits the South China Sea each year, $1.2 trillion of it touches U.S. ports — and so American foreign policy has begun to shift accordingly.
In a major speech in Singapore last year, Leon Panetta, then the secretary of defense, described the coming pivot in U.S. strategy in precise terms: “While the U.S. will remain a global force for security and stability, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.” He referred to the United States as a “Pacific nation,” with a capital “P” and no irony, and then announced a series of changes — most notably that the roughly 50-50 balance of U.S. naval forces between the Pacific and the Atlantic would become 60-40 Pacific by 2020. Given the size of the U.S. Navy, this is enormously significant.
In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.
“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”
There can be no question that the cabbage strategy is in effect now at Ayungin and has been at least since May. General Zhang, in his interview several months ago, listed Ren’ai Shoal (the Chinese name for Ayungin) in the P.L.A.’s “series of achievements” in the South China Sea. He had already put it in the win column, even though eight Filipino marines still live there. He also seemed to take some pleasure in the strategy. Of taking territory from the Philippines, he said: “We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the cabbage strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.”
Armed Forces: 120, 000 (RP) Vs. 3 million (China )In bringing their complaints to arbitration, the Philippines has used the only real lever it has: to try to occupy the moral high ground and focus international attention on the issue. In response, China has tried to isolate the Philippines — discouraging President Benigno S. Aquino III from attending the China-Asean Expo in Nanning last month and continuing to steer the Asean agenda away from a final agreement on a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea. (One former U.S. official told me, “So far, China has been able to split Asean the way you would split a cord of wood.”) China has stated that they view the overlapping claims as bilateral issues, to be negotiated between China and each individual claimant one at a time, a strategy that maximizes what China can extract from each party.
While an arbitration outcome unfavorable to the Chinese — which could be decided as early as March 2015 — would create some public-perception problems for them, China is unlikely to be deterred, in part because there is no enforcement mechanism. “Let’s be honest,” Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt says, “China has essentially studied how the U.S. has conducted its hegemony, and they’re saying, ‘We have to respect some court case?’ They say that the United States blatantly violates international law when it’s in its interest. China sees this as what first-class powers do.” (Multiple requests for comment from the Chinese government went unanswered.)
The official U.S. position, articulated by Secretaries Clinton and Kerry, has been that the U.S. will not take sides in disputes over sovereignty. As the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel R. Russel, told me, “Our primary interest is in maintaining peace, security and stability that allows for economic growth and avoids tension or conflict.” Basically, we’re staying out of it. But the U.S. has stepped up its joint operations with the Philippines, including a recent mock amphibious landing not far from Scarborough Shoal. There has also been talk of increasing U.S. troop rotations into some of its former bases.
“I think we want to find a way to restrain China and reassure the Philippines without getting ourselves into a shooting war,” James Steinberg, the former deputy secretary of state under Hillary Clinton, told me. “We have a broad interest in China behaving responsibly. But sovereignty over the Spratly Islands is not our dispute. We need to find a way to be engaged without being in the middle.” Kurt Campbell, a former assistant secretary of state with the Obama administration, put it more bluntly: “Maritime territorial disputes are the hardest problem, bar none, that diplomats are currently facing in Asia. On all of these issues, no country has any flexibility. I’ve never seen more white knuckles.”
According to Huang Jing: “Everyone in this region is playing a double game. Ten years ago, the United States was absolutely dominant in the region — economically, politically, militarily. People only had one yardstick to measure their national interest and their foreign policy, and the name of that yardstick was U.S.A. Now there are two yardsticks. On the political one, it’s still the U.S., but on the economic one, it is China.”
The United States does not have the unlimited leverage that it once did, and so for the time being it is allowing the Chinese to slice their salami all the way up onto the shallows of Ayungin.