Foreign Policy Blogs

Beijing loses face in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan


photo: Associated Press

Chinese president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang’s diplomatic offensive in Southeast Asia reaped benefits last month, as Beijing reached agreement with Vietnam to form a working group to jointly explore the waters of the disputed South China Sea.  Beijing seems to have copied Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” in the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to skip an important ASEAN meeting (and subsequent visits to Southeast Asian nations) to remain in Washington last month to deal with his government’s fiscal impasse.  Many hope that the agreement reached with Vietnam indicates a softening of Beijing’s approach to other nations, including the Philippines, who are strongly contesting their claim to disputed waters.

But in light of the tragic aftermath of the super-typhoon Haiyan devastating the central region of the Philippines, the reaction of Beijing has so far suggested there will be no softening.  The typhoon, which hit last week, is considered the strongest typhoon that the Philippines has encountered in history and as of today, the death toll has risen to over 2,300 with close to 700,000 people having been displaced from their homes and 11 million effected.

International aid has been pouring into the Philippines from a number of nations and international relief agencies to deal with the aftermath of the storm, which caused at least $700 million in damages to agricultural, fishing and other related industries, according to the report.  Australia has pledged $28 million, and the U.S. government said it was offering $20 million in humanitarian relief, along with a recently arrived U.S. aircraft carrier full of planes, helicopters and 1000 personnel to assist in relief efforts.  Japan has offered $10 million in aid and is sending in an emergency relief team.  The Chinese government initially pledged to give only $200,000, with Beijing directly contributing $100,000 and the Chinese Red Cross contributing another $100,000.  (Perhaps in response to worldwide criticism of the initial paltry amount, Beijing just announced it is now contributing another $1.64 million in tents, blankets and other goods.)  China’s total contribution still seems modest compared with its other recent contributions for humanitarian relief abroad, and many are quick to blame the modest contribution on politics.  After a magnitude-7.7 earthquake struck western Pakistan in September, China quickly offered more than $5 million in supplies and other aid to its longtime strategic partner. After a tropical storm hit the Philippines in 2011, China pledged $1 million in humanitarian aid.  When a similar magnitude-7.1 earthquake struck the Philippines in October, China’s embassy announced $80,000 in relief through the Red Cross.  The relationship between China and the Philippines has deteriorated in recent years as tensions have escalated over disputed territorial waters off the coast of the island of Palawan, and this seems to be reflected in the declining amounts of assistance Beijing is willing to pledge to the Philippines for disaster relief.

Even the highly nationalistic Global Times newspaper published an editorial on Tuesday arguing the territorial row should not affect such decisions. The editorial implored “It’s a must to aid typhoon victims in the Philippines,” and in a warning to a potential waning of China’s soft power, added “China’s international image is of vital importance to its interests. If it snubs Manila this time, China will suffer great losses.”

Despite a heap of nationalistic venting on Sohu, a Chinese internet company, one Chinese writer responded with a message intended to quell the schadenfruede:

“Are you still human beings or not! Over ten thousand people are dead! Those who died are people, not pigs. People are dead and you’re still laughing at other people’s misfortunes. You don’t deserve to be Chinese. Chinese people have been hailed as a land of etiquette and manners since ancient times and we’re always talking about how great our people are in this or that way, but I guess we’re all idiots making jokes [proving ourselves wrong]. The people of the Philippines are innocent and you should treat the matter separately [politics from people]. Although we can’t donate, we still shouldn’t be laughing at their misfortune! Is this the kind of talk the sons and daughters of great China should be saying? it’s not me being self-righteous, we can’t let the Americans look down upon us, and we can’t let the Japanese look down upon us even more. We mustn’t let others look down upon Chinese people.”

The failure to separate people from politics is the core issue, as many Americans traveling abroad can attest to.  Many people I have met in other countries assume my total support for any decision of the U.S. government, and assume I have voted for the current president or agree with all of the president’s decisions.  It is a lazy way of thinking, and can be expected from casual encounters among strangers from different countries.

But we should expect more from governments.  Of course, foreign aid is typically given to friendly nations out of geopolitical concerns, or rewarding friends for mutually beneficial behavior.  Humanitarian aid is different.  Innocent victims of natural disasters do not deserve to be caught up in politics – if the money is there, it should be granted to the victims, no questions asked and no political favors expected in return.   Beijing has been shamed over its initial petty offer of assistance and needs to learn to differentiate between a country’s political leaders and its people – until it does this it stands to lose its soft power influence in the region.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666