Foreign Policy Blogs

Beijing Balks, Tokyo Talks

Survivors of Typhoon Haiyan pass the time at a school where hundreds have found shelter at, in Tacloban

AP Photo: David Guttenfelder

With the official death toll from Typhoon Haiyan topping 4,000 on Wednesday, nations from around the world are ramping up their efforts to help the Philippines deal with over 1,600 missing persons, 700,000 damaged houses and the nearly 10 million people affected.  Australia, Britain and the U.S. have so far each pledged $28 million, $26 million and $20 million, respectively, while also offering ships and personnel to bring relief to typhoon survivors.  Japan has offered $10 million and is sending a cruiser, a cargo ship, a fuel supply ship, eight helicopters and 1,000 troops.  All of these efforts are intended primarily to help the Philippines deal with its tragedy, but they will also help cement friendships and strengthen partnerships in the region.

Unfortunately the response from the largest economic power in the region, China, has been caught up in territorial disputes over the South China Sea.  Beijing’s initial offer of $100,000 was widely viewed as representative of Chinese anger over President Benigno Aquino’s willingness to pushback on China’s claims for territory in the South China Sea.  Aquino has gone so far as to submit the dispute to United Nations arbitration.

Following intense criticism at home and abroad, Beijing has since upped the amount to $1.6 million, along with sending its military hospital ship, the Peace Ark, and a 51-person medical relief team to help with relief efforts.  While efforts to boost its assistance are laudable, Beijing’s late and clumsy response could signal a decline of influence in the region, where China, the U.S. and Japan have all been competing for influence in the strategically important and mineral-rich South China Sea.  Beijing has competing territorial claims with the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam, while Japan has its own maritime territorial disputes with China and has increasingly backed Beijing’s rivals.

While Beijing stumbles, Tokyo has been striding forward and courting favor within the region.  Last Saturday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Laos and Cambodia, the first trip by a Japanese leader to the two Southeast Asian countries since 2000. The trip was more symbolic than game-changing, as the two nations remain within China’s orbit, yet Abe left with some friendly agreements to help fund road, bridge, and rail infrastructure.  And his trip completed a first for a Japanese leader – having visited all 10 member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Abe will also host a summit meeting with ASEAN leaders in Tokyo next month to commemorate the 40th anniversary of friendship.

Along with the handshakes, Tokyo is also improving security cooperation among the ASEAN nations, providing maritime patrol vessels to the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.  Tokyo is also considering selling vessels to Vietnam and conducting counterterrorism exercises with Indonesia.  Meanwhile, Abe has yet to sit down with Chinese President Xi Jinping or Premier Li Keqiang.

Abe is obviously attempting to build influence with ASEAN nations, and siding with countries that have territorial disputes of their own with China, hoping that together they can successfully fend off any aggressive attempts by Beijing to control disputed territorial waters.  Tokyo understands, and is spreading the message, that when dealing with an economic and military powerhouse such as China, it helps to have friends who will stand by each other in times of need.  Beijing fully understands Tokyo’s soft power attempts to curry favor in the region, but it’s belated and weak response in assisting the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan has caused it to lose some of its soft power face and its actions will not soon be forgotten among its neighbors.



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